There is never a good time to raise taxes. But the stars of politics, markets, immediate requirements and long-term need are aligned as they have rarely been before to permit a modest increase in Maryland's gasoline tax.
An extra dime per gallon would make Maryland's gas tax only a penny more than Pennsylvania's, generate more than $300 million in badly needed annual revenue and give Maryland training wheels for the lower-carbon, made-in-the-USA energy economy.
Shame that Gov. Martin O'Malley doesn't look like he'll seize the opportunity. Although he has pushed for it before, the chance of a gas-tax bump this year "is very unlikely given the state of the economy and the fact that Maryland families are struggling to pay their bills," says O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.
Ten cents per gallon would cost drivers only about $5 a month while giving the state a head start in beating the foreign oil habit and building a 21st-century transportation system. Those paying $4 a gallon to Exxon and the Saudis last summer should hardly balk if the price went from $1.70 to $1.80 now and the proceeds stayed here.
Environmentalists like a gas tax because it discourages driving and pollution. So do many Democrats, who tend to have more faith than their Republican colleagues in government's ability to spend the proceeds wisely.
But gas taxes aren't just for liberals anymore. Business leaders and Republicans are pushing energy taxes - some as a way to finance crucial roads and transit systems, some to wean Americans off foreign energy, some to address carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.
"We feel there needs to be more money going into the transportation trust fund to pay for important infrastructure projects," says Will Burns, spokesman for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which favors a Maryland gas tax increase.
Raising the gas tax was a top item discussed at the chamber's legislative breakfast two weeks ago. Even chamber chairman Betty Buck, whose Buck Distributing beer trucks would pay thousands in added tax, favors the measure because it would ensure good roads, Burns said.
Good roads are certainly at stake. As the Transportation Trust Fund scrapes the bottom of the barrel, even routine maintenance is threatened.
"We strongly support more transportation funding, and we advocate an increase in the gas tax," said Don Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business advocacy group.
But there is more to be done than simply keeping up the present system. State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari keeps postponing upgrades for commuter trains and Washington metro lines. Critical road improvements for Defense Department base realignment are jeopardized.
And the statewide revenue picture keeps worsening, underscored by the dud auction for slots franchises.
O'Malley, of course, is counting on hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars to save the day. That way he avoids the political risk of raising taxes and saves some transportation projects.
A Maryland gas-tax increase from 23.5 cents to 33.5 cents, however, could multiply stimulus benefits. Maryland needs to think bigger. We worry about keeping the Penn Line commuter rail from being blocked by freight trains when we should be thinking about reviving the Baltimore-Washington magnetic levitation train.
"While higher gas taxes are unattractive, the alternatives are even worse," N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers from 2003 to 2005, wrote in The Wall Street Journal two years ago. He wants to raise the federal gas tax - currently 18.4 cents a gallon - by 10 cents per year for a decade. At $1.184 per gallon in 2019, that would still be less than European gas taxes. Air would be cleaner, roads less congested, government less broke and the country more secure, he argued.
At the moment, President Barack Obama doesn't seem very enthusiastic about raising the federal gas tax. Maryland could show him how it's done, dig itself from a hole, begin to discourage wasteful driving and begin to pay for what will replace it.