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Transportation taxes again? [Editorial]

It's a given that politicians like to spend money but they don't like to raise taxes. After all, the former makes them popular with their constituents and the latter has the opposite effect. Rarely is this more evident than in an election year.

Marylanders may want to keep that in mind if they're bewildered by how less than one year after the General Assembly approved a major gas tax increase, lawmakers are back debating whether to raise transportation-related taxes again. To the outsider, it has the look of a pack of ravenous wolves squabbling over a recent kill while eyeing a deer across the meadow rather than being satisfied with the bounty before them.

But the reality is, this makes perfect sense, and it has to do with the failure of the O'Malley administration and its predecessors to devise a viable long-term plan for financing transportation in Maryland. What exists now is a highly centralized system that relies on a patchwork of taxes and fees to pay into what's known as the Transportation Trust Fund.

What all the recent squabbling is about is one specific component of the fund known as Highway Users Revenue. That's the money that goes to local governments, both counties and municipalities, to pay for local transportation projects. Last year's gas tax hike didn't guarantee one dime more will be paid to local governments under HUR, and some mayors, county executives, council members and commissioners aren't particularly happy about that.

That's because HUR was reduced drastically during the recession beginning in 2009. Republicans like to refer to this is a "theft" of money that was ultimately used to help balance other parts of the state budget. That little trick has been pulled off many times before in fiscally lean years, including by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. What's been different this time is that Gov. Martin O'Malley has been slow to restore it.

But the move was hardly thievery, as it actually spared local governments worse cuts in programs like k-12 education and public safety. Simply put, it's far easier to postpone pot hole repairs than to increase school class sizes or lay off police officers. (Incidentally, most county governments actually cut their own transportation spending after 2009, too, according to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, so their programs must not have been hurting too badly.)

When the administration officials sought support for the gas tax bill last year, they promised to spend the new revenue on what state lawmakers wanted most — not a restoration of local aid but on new highway and transit construction like the two major light rail expansions, Baltimore's planned 14-mile Red Line from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview and the 16-mile Purple Line that will eventually link New Carrollton with Bethesda.

The bill passed on the strength of Democratic votes, so it's hardly shocking that projects serving the Baltimore-Washington area are among the first moving forward under the state's Consolidated Transportation Program. Nor should it be surprising that counties and towns are crying over the failure to restore HUR — they'd rather get their cake and eat it, too by receiving millions more dollars annually in state aid while simultaneously blasting Democrats for raising the gas tax.

Legislation pending before the General Assembly would force a restoration of Highway Users Revenue while another bill would offer local governments a simple alternative to finance transportation — a $20 add-on fee on vehicle registration. Neither is likely to pass.

The more realistic outcome is that Maryland's next governor will, like Mr. O'Malley, gradually put more into HUR as the economy improves and transportation revenues grow. Already, about half has been restored to municipalities.

But there's a better solution. Little noticed amid the brouhaha was the report of a task force studying local and regional transportation funding released late last year. They came up with the idea of adding the $20 registration fee, but it was part of a larger vision of decentralizing transportation financing in Maryland and creating so-called "Regional Transportation Authorities" that would support local projects.

That makes a lot of sense, and it's been done in many other states. The key is to give a region greater flexibility to raise funds and not rely so much on the state's largesse and the political uncertainty that comes with it.

But we won't hold our collective breath waiting for lawmakers to make that kind of rational choice. It's an election year, and it seems half of elected officials want to cut ribbons and the other half want to cut taxes. The bottom line is that transportation infrastructure has been too neglected in this state and this country to be satisfied with the status quo. The sooner we commit to the means to finance the billions of dollars in needed improvements (beyond any one-time gas tax increase) to support future growth, keep the streets unclogged for commuters and the economy competitive for the next generation, the better off we'll be.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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