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Ehrlich offers plan to improve highways


Declaring that state roads have too long been neglected, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. warned that "the people of Maryland will be watching" if legislators fail to pass a proposal he unveiled yesterday to pump new money into transportation projects.

In a news conference near a congested Baltimore Beltway interchange, Ehrlich said his plan will provide an additional $320 million a year for the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund without raising taxes.

"This is a beginning point in a long-term process. Transportation has been a neglected area of public policy for more than a decade," he said.

Although the revenue plan would not raise gasoline or titling taxes, it would bring hefty increases in vehicle registration fees. The Ehrlich package would also establish steeper fines for drunken driving and moving violations by tacking surcharges onto the penalties for those offenses.

Other revenue would come from unspecified fees, money shifted from the state's general fund and revised estimates of returns from current taxes.

Some of the proposals prompted some Democrats to question whether Ehrlich had truly delivered on his commitment to raise the new $300 million a year in transportation revenue. A commission led by former Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann had called for that amount.

By far the biggest chunk of the new revenues - an estimated $153 million - would come from raising registration fees.

For a light passenger vehicle, owners would pay an additional $23.50 a year. Their bills, paid every other year, would go from $81 to $128.

Fees for passenger vehicles over 3,700 pounds - a category that includes most SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks - would rise $36 a year. Their owners would see their bills go from $107 to $179.

Democrats were quick to label the registration fee a "car tax," but Ehrlich said that argument was "silly even for them."

"People understand fees. They understand the difference between fees and taxes," he said.

The governor made his announcement at a State Highway Administration facility off U.S. 40 near Westview Mall, with the Beltway as a backdrop for the television cameras. He said an $8 million reconstruction of the congested intersection is an example of one of the projects the additional revenue would make possible.

Although the funds that his package would raise would go for a variety of purposes, including mass transit, Ehrlich left little doubt yesterday that his prime concern was automobile travel.

"We cannot continue to ignore our highways," he said. "We believe there has to be a better balance between mass transit and roads."

The governor's emphasis on roads won praise from Republican legislators, who were consulted extensively on the package and argued strongly against a gas-tax increase.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell predicted that all but a few Republicans in his caucus would support Ehrlich's plan - even though it would mean voting for fee increases.

"It's a wonderful and remarkable set of proposals," the Calvert County lawmaker said. "This administration is very focused on improving our bridges, roads and transportation infrastructure, and I believe that the governor will get strong bipartisan support - or at least should."

Democratic leaders, who said Ehrlich did not seek their input, were less sanguine about the package's prospects.

"It's going to have a very difficult time in the Maryland General Assembly," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The Democratic leader predicted that the registration fee increases will be especially controversial. "You can disguise these as fees, but they're tantamount to a car tax," he said.

Miller said he would have preferred an increase in the state's 23.5-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax. "It's an honest tax. It's up front, and it taxes people who move through our state," he said.

The Ehrlich proposal relies on a variety of non-traditional revenue sources to close the gap between what it gains from registration fees and its $300-million- a-year goal.

The administration estimates that it will raise $11 million by slapping a $200 surcharge on the penalties for drunken driving. "I have very little sympathy for these folks," Ehrlich said.

The proposal also projects raising $40 million by adding $50 to the fines for speeding or other moving violations.

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