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News Opinion Editorial

Annapolis' unfinished business: Transportation funding

Not long after the Maryland General Assembly last adjourned back in mid-April, gasoline prices were approaching $4 a gallon. Currently, a price-conscious shopper can purchase a gallon of regular unleaded in the Baltimore area for as little as $3.50.

That's a 50-cent swing in prices, essentially a 12.5 percent discount from just one month ago. So, Mr. and Mrs. Average Maryland Consumer, has this drop in prices had a huge impact on your life? Has it revived the economy? Put the unemployed back to work? Caused commodity prices to fall?

Probably the most it's meant is a modest savings, hardly noticeable. Yet raise the prospect of a much smaller swing in prices — an immediate 1 percent or 2 percent increase brought by raising the state's tax on gasoline, either directly or by applying the sales tax to purchases over the next several years — and watch the hand-wringing and demagoguery begin.

On Wednesday, lawmakers are likely to wrap up a special legislative session called to pass a state budget more palatable than the "doomsday" version they left behind in April. But they will have done nothing to address the state's "other deficit" — the lack of funding to cover billions of dollars of needed transportation projects, from road improvements to expanded public transit.

Maryland's gasoline tax remains at 1992 levels, and the prospect for maintaining decent roads and other transportation infrastructure, including around such important job-generators as Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the Interstate 270 technology corridor in Montgomery County and the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, is woeful.

We don't blame people for being unhappy with paying more in taxes, whether there's a recession on or not, but they need to make a distinction between spending that ought to be regarded as optional and that which is needed to protect the future. It's not unlike the difference between money a family might spend on luxuries, such as restaurant dinners and vacations, and what it needs to fix a leaking roof. Neglect the leaking roof, and the destruction only escalates the longer you put it off.

That's why business groups like the Greater Baltimore Committee have been pushing for higher transportation taxes — and specifically the gasoline tax — for years. They understand that postponing those investments is penny-wise but dollar-foolish. The Baltimore-Washington area is already among the nation's most congested corridors, and the cost of getting stuck in traffic is high — in lost business, lost productivity and a lower quality of life.

That's likely one reason why some House Democrats from Montgomery County who briefly floated the idea of raising the state's sales tax to 7 percent (as opposed to raising the income tax) included money for transportation in their plan — as much as $300 million annually for Baltimore transit operating costs. While we would oppose raising the sales tax in such a manner, at least those lawmakers understood where the money was needed.

Gov.Martin O'Malleydeserves some credit for pushing the gas tax issue, albeit without much success. It's clearly not a crowd-pleaser. But he understands that Maryland has been losing ground since 1992. According to one estimate, the state would have to raise the gas tax by 15.8 cents per gallon just to keep up with two decades of inflation.

Some of the opposition to higher gasoline taxes simply isn't rational. Complaints that the Transportation Trust Fund has been raided generally fail to account for how much has been repaid (most of it) or how such transfers helped postpone alternative tax increases during the recession. For many opponents, it comes down to sticker shock: Even $3.50-a-gallon gasoline seems a whole lot higher than the $2 that it averaged (accounting for inflation) through much of the 1980s and '90s.

Legislators are talking about yet another special session, this one to consider expanded gambling, later this year. If so, they ought to take up the far more pressing subject of transportation funding and the estimated $800 million or more the state needs annually in new transportation revenue to keep up with demand — or place Maryland's economic future in serious jeopardy.

Perhaps there is a better way to collect that money than from a tax on gasoline. If so, we haven't heard it yet. The Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding recommended an overall 15-cent increase. As this month's drop in gasoline prices has demonstrated, the public can handle that kind of variation in price at the pump three times over.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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