Gas tax hike would hurt truckers, Md. economy

With the stunning end to Maryland's General Assembly, many have opined of the need to raise the gas tax in the anticipated special session ("Baltimore gets stranded," April 17). Supporters state that the "business community" overwhelmingly favors such an increase. Notably, many in the "business community" that favor the gas tax represent businesses that do not actually own vehicles. As a representative of the trucking industry which delivers the food, clothing, medicine and other goods Marylanders use, I can tell you that such support among businesses is hardly universal.

Advocates state that the gas tax is needed because our aging transportation system is crumbling. To be sure, congestion has grown, but are our roads crumbling as a result? Not according to the Federal Highway Administration's annual highway statistics report. In fact, FHWA shows the percentage of Maryland highways and bridges that are "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete" is less than it was in the mid-1990s. The perception of crumbling roadways is often unquestioned because of the I-35 Minnesota bridge collapse, yet federal investigators attributed this tragedy to be caused by faulty design, not under-investment in maintenance.

Supporters also observe that the gas tax has not increased in 20 years. This is true, but it suggests the gas tax is Maryland's only source of transportation revenue and ignores other rising transportation fees. In 2004 vehicle registration fees jumped 50 percent. For the trucking industry, Maryland now has the highest registration fees among any neighboring states — $1,800 per year per truck. In 2007, Maryland passed a package that included increasing the corporate income tax, raising the vehicle titling tax, and allocating a portion of the state's 1-cent sales tax increase to transportation, yet these revenues were never fully dispersed for transportation purposes. This says nothing of tolls, which have risen 450 percent.

Finally, allies suggest that the gas tax will generate new infrastructure projects that create thousands of construction industry jobs. Clearly, that industry has suffered. However, this jobs benefit ignores the offsetting employment loss that will occur in other industries. A 15-cents-per-gallon increase would give Maryland the highest fuel tax in our region and would cost one truck driver an extra $3,000 per year. Imposing such a dramatic cost on local truckers will cause many companies to lay off workers or join the thousands that closed their doors during the recession. Many businesses are pulling out of a deep hole, but rates are still depressed and the recovery is fragile.

A fuel tax increase will also severely impact the Port of Baltimore, Maryland's economic engine, which relies greatly on trucks. At a time when the maritime industry is gearing up for unprecedented opportunities with the expansion of the Panama Canal, these actions will dramatically raise the costs of distribution to and from the port, thereby decreasing its attractiveness to shippers. Inevitably, shippers will look to bring their products to ports like Virginia where truckers are not burdened with such massive taxes, tolls and fees.

Maryland's transportation infrastructure must be financially supported. However, when dollars are tight it begs the question, "Are we getting the most bang for our buck?" Most of Maryland's transportation money comes from road users in the form of fuel taxes and vehicle excise taxes, yet 57 percent of the Maryland Department of Transportation's annual operating expenses go to support the state's transit systems. Car and truck drivers raise over $1.9 billion of the state's transportation income, while costing only $1.25 billion. This means $650 million is donated by highway users to subsidize our transit systems. Failing to invest in transit is a mistake, yet so is over-investing. Total transit ridership is 4 percent of commuters. Since 1980, Maryland has spent billions on transit projects, yet the rate of commuters using the systems to get to work is virtually the same. Absent a new supplemental source of transit funding, Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund will collapse under the growing weight of our transit costs. No amount of gas tax increase will be able to support the massive transit investments that the Red Line and Purple Line will require.

Finally, transportation funds continue to be diverted for other purposes. In the last three years, $900 million was diverted from citizens' transportation taxes. Those funds were supposed to support local transportation projects, but instead they were redirected to the state's General Fund. That is like taking away 10 cents per gallon from the state's fuel tax. Let's address this before asking anyone, business or consumer, to pay more.

Paul Kelly, Baltimore

The writer is chairman of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, Inc.

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