Imagine that next week the price of a gallon of gasoline in Maryland went up a nickel or so. This shouldn't be too difficult a stretch the way gasoline prices have been rising in recent months. It may go up two cents or six, or it may stay about the same.

What will happen as a result of a 1.2 percent price increase? For most drivers, it probably means a dollar or so more out of their pockets. That's not good news, but it's hardly the end of the world either. Most of us will just grumble at the service station sign and then go "fill 'er up" as we normally do — and watch prices go up and down again in the years ahead.


But instead of that nickel going to a large oil company or a market speculator, what if it could be spent within the state of Maryland on construction projects that would make a motorist's commute faster, safer and perhaps even cheaper? Surely that would be a far better nickel spent than just another in the pocket ofExxon Mobil Corp.

Yet efforts to raise the gas tax have proven so futile so far this legislative session that Gov.Martin O'Malleywas back at it this week telling reporters that maybe Maryland sales tax should be increased from 6 percent to 7 percent instead with that extra penny used exclusively on transportation. Apparently, the relative ease with which lawmakers were willing to raise the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent just five years ago is never far from the governor's thoughts.

We hope he wasn't serious. At 6 percent, Maryland's sales tax is at about the national average, and that's a good place for such a regressive form of taxation to stay. The poor get hit by a sales tax the hardest, particularly those who can't even afford a car.

We don't relish the thought of paying more for gasoline — working families feel that pinch, too — but we have yet to hear about any alternative to a gas tax increase that makes much sense. Somebody has to pay to maintain and upgrade Maryland's highways, bridges, public transportation, bustling port and airport. And the more of that burden falls the users of those facilities (with those who use them more paying more) surely the better.

It would be one thing if the gas tax had gone up with inflation, but it hasn't. It's still stuck at 1992 levels — back when 23.5 cents per gallon represented slightly more than one-fifth the cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline. The result has been that Maryland's investment in transportation infrastructure has not kept pace either, despite increases in various transportation-related fees.

Lawmakers are likely thinking, why not defer it a few years more? It's no secret that the gas tax doesn't poll well, and Mr. O'Malley's initial goal of applying the 6 percent sales tax to gas purchases hasn't exactly won over the public. It's just too easy to demagogue on the subject. Just ask Newt Gingrich, who was in Annapolis just long enough to mock the idea (although it didn't seem to do him much good in Tuesday's primary).

But if not now, when? It's already been deferred through good economic times and bad. And with the legislative session dwindling to its final hours, it's pretty clear it won't pass between now and sine die — even though the O'Malley administration has offered various sweeteners like a "circuit breaker" to postpone any increase if gas prices rise too much or setting new "lock box" rules on the Transportation Trust Fund so the money will never be used to help balance the budget.

The best alternative? Mr. O'Malley should call for a special session within the next 30 days. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has already expressed an interest in such a tactic. It's been used before when transportation funding was threatened. It will give lawmakers time to focus on the problem and offer the public a chance to better understand what's at stake.

Make no mistake, a gas tax increase is badly needed to preserve and protect Maryland's economy. Despite what Mr. Gingrich might say, Maryland's major business organizations wholeheartedly support it as a pro-growth strategy. There's no higher priority for the Greater Baltimore Committee. After all, there's no money saved if, for lack of pennies more on the gas tax, commuters are stuck in traffic or see bridges deemed too unsafe to use or watch bus and other public transit systems whither on the vine — all real possibilities if Maryland goes another four years without addressing the problem.

The irony is that if somehow the gas tax could be raised without so much ado, consumers probably would not notice. They didn't when the gas tax was raised in the past. Gasoline prices have become so volatile that another nickel or a dime at the pump (or a similar drop in prices) barely registers. We willingly give so much of our money to the oil companies each time we refill our gas tanks, why not reserve a bit more for ourselves?