Keeping Transportation First-Rate


Maryland's transportation officials are in a bind. Plummeting gasoline consumption after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, followed by a tumble in new-car sales, drained the state of $600 million already earmarked for roads, bridges and mass transit. The only way to pay for these projects: higher taxes.

But legislators don't want to raise taxes, especially just after voters protested at the polls against "tax and spend" politicians. They would much prefer forcing transportation officials to cut expenses.

The problem is that this would mean a halt to all construction projects for two years. No road resurfacing. No bridge repairs. No new buses or commuter trains. This might balance the department's books, but at a cost motorists and commuters would find unacceptable.

So DOT officials have swallowed hard and asked the legislature for a $1.5-billion package over the next five years. This would be enough to complete projects approved last year, continue road and bridge repairs, and embark on modest enhancements, such as enlarging commuter-rail lines now overwhelmed with customers.

DOT wants to increase auto and truck registration fees so they are comparable to surrounding states. Paying an extra $7 a year (it is now $27) to register your car is not unreasonable. Nor is it out of line to charge $20 (now $6) for a driver's license or charge $10 (now $1) to transfer tags. Some of these fees have not been changed in 40 years.

More controversial is DOT's requested 6 1/2 -cent gas-tax increase (to 25 cents a gallon) and a later conversion to a 5 percent sales tax on the gallon price. It would place Maryland at the top nationally in its motor fuel rate, though 11 other states are considering even higher tax increases.

Yet what choice do legislators have? Without added revenue, DOT will be forced to curtail its construction activity on state highways and mass transit projects aimed at reducing highway congestion. That, in turn, will hurt the state's economy and worsen the local recession. Maryland's transportation network will suffer, making the state less desirable to businesses seeking new locations.

This is a scenario state lawmakers should reject. DOT's construction program must continue. There are, though, steps that can be taken to reduce the size of the tax increase. Lawmakers can, for instance, reject the governor's plan to shift $76 million in corporate income tax receipts out of the transportation fund and into the general fund. Legislators can also insist DOT give more specifics on how this new revenue will be spent.

Maryland's motorist fees are not onerous. Compared with taxes in other countries, this state's levies are modest. The General Assembly should have the courage to provide the funds needed to keep transportation in Maryland first-rate.

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