A dime's worth of difference

At the Petro gas station on York Road in Timonium, a gallon of unleaded was quoted at $3.91 last week. Four blocks south, near Ridgely Road, that same gallon of gasoline cost $4.05 at the Citgo. Despite the 14-cent difference, both stations appeared to be doing well, attracting a steady pace of motorists.

That's hardly a shock. After all, 14 cents is little more than 3 percent, or half the state's sales tax. And other service stations on York Road in Timonium reflected a range of prices, with most falling somewhere between Petro's and Citgo's.

So while consumers aren't happy about rising fuel prices — and there's evidence that energy costs may even be slowing down the economic recovery nationwide — it's also safe to say most aren't feeling desperate about the last dime or so per gallon. That's chump change: A $70 fill-up may be painful, but so is a $67 one.

Yet that reality is in no way reflected in the behavior of state legislators who in recent weeks have been voicing opposition to a possible 10-cent increase in the state's gasoline tax as if it represented political suicide. Most will grudgingly concede that something must be done to bolster Maryland's largely depleted Transportation Trust Fund, but gas tax supporters are few and far between.

We feel their pain — a little bit. The prospect of higher gasoline prices has all the appeal of root canal without benefit of painkillers. But it's not the dime in taxes that would go to improving roads, bridges and transit in this state that hurts so much, it's the $3.50 or so that's going to line the pockets of the oil producers, foreign and domestic.

What's maddening about lawmakers and their kneejerk reaction to the 10-cent tax is that the alternatives for reviving the depleted trust fund are even less appealing. Raise fees? Already been done. Car registration and titling? Ditto. The corporate tax has already been boosted, and raising the sales tax by a penny and setting aside that money for transportation (a practice common in other states) is a nonstarter, as the ink is barely dry on the 2007 sales tax increase.

Making matters worse, of course, is that the trust fund has been raided to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to help balance the state budget. Some of that has been repaid (or will be in the future), but much of it was not. As commonplace as the practice of dipping into the trust fund has become in economic hard times, it still amounts to eating the seed corn. Nonetheless, simply stopping it won't be enough to solve Maryland's transportation problems.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding is expected to offer alternatives and will no doubt consider some creative schemes such as private-public partnerships and the like. But none comes close to providing the $500 million per year that advocates believe the trust fund requires to meet such obligations as Baltimore's Red Line light rail project or even to keep up with routine maintenance and repair. All in all, Maryland faces a staggering $50 billion in unmet transportation needs.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Baltimore Committee and other business groups understand the importance of sound transportation infrastructure for Maryland's economy. They know neglect comes with a cost, too: The hours spent in congestion and lost productivity can be far more harmful to their bottom line than any gas tax.

Maryland's gas tax hasn't been raised since 1992, when the current 23.5 cents per gallon represented about 20 percent of the cost of a gallon of gasoline, which was about $1.13 at the time. If that 20 percent ratio were restored today, consumers would be looking not at a dime increase but at five times that much.

Republicans in Annapolis are no doubt hoping that Democrats will raise the gas tax. Polls have shown voters don't like the idea very much. But it's hard to believe the tax would prove noticeable when there's more than a dime's variation in gas prices now.

What Governor O'Malley and all those reluctant lawmakers need to do is bite the bullet and act this year (this fall's special session on legislative redistricting would seem the ideal moment) and not wait for polls to show the public supports a gas tax increase — something that's unlikely to ever happen.

The longer Annapolis waits, the worse the state's neglected transportation infrastructure is going to get, and voters are bound to be just as angry about that. Mr. O'Malley may also want to take a lesson from the late William Donald Schaefer, who was remembered fondly by people across the state for the roads, bridges and light rail project he built while in office. But not once was it noted that he was the last governor to raise the gas tax.

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