We all benefit from transit, and we should all pay for it

Opponents of the effort to raise Maryland's gas tax have thrown around a lot of ridiculous claims in recent weeks, from the argument that the money isn't really needed (if anything, the projected $600 million-a-year return is not enough to meet Maryland's future transportation needs) to hand-wringing over local transportation aid that was diverted toward balancing the state budget during the depths of the recession — as if using the money to spare cuts to schools or avoid tax increases wasn't preferable to pot hole repairs.

Oh, and here's a favorite. Raising the gas tax in a manner that will result in more revenue to the state as prices rise puts the tax, as Del. Herbert McMillan claims, on "autopilot and locks us out of the cockpit." (Heavens, imagine a tax that rose with inflation. Let's see, sales, personal income, corporate income, property, transfer…).

But the latest criticism smacks of something worse than the customary short-sighted single-mindedness of anti-tax crusaders. Some opponents say not a penny of gas tax money should be spent on public transportation, which should instead be self-sustaining.

What makes this claim particularly laughable is that gas tax opponents insist they want to look out for low-income families. They argue that working people end up paying a higher percentage of their income toward gasoline taxes than high-earners — and that's true, although the same could surely be said of the sales tax and many other consumption-related taxes and fees.

But what about those who can't afford a car at all? For mass transit to be self-sustaining, fares would have to be astronomical. Would a 400-to-500 percent increase be enough? Considering the immediate drop-off in ridership it would cause, probably not.

Do we really want to make it more difficult for poor people to hold jobs? That's not the only purpose of public transit, of course, but it's certainly among its most vital functions. Without buses, light rail and subway to connect low-income workers with employment, particularly in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, poverty and government-dependence would spike. Putting more people on the dole isn't usually the goal of anti-tax crusaders.

But really, it's worse than that. To suggest that spending on public transit is inherently wasteful is not only unfair but inaccurate. Maryland traffic congestion is already ranked among the worst in the nation. How much worse would it be if not for transit? A full bus may take 60 cars off the road, a full rail car 200.

Public transit provides rides for hundreds of thousands of commuters each day. Without that option, the state would have to be build hundreds more miles of roads to accommodate the traffic — adding as much as 71 percent more lane miles in some areas, according to one 1999 report on Maryland's transit potential.

In a small state where adding, or even widening, roads may cause serious disruption, displace homeowners and cost billions of dollars, paving one's way out of traffic congestion isn't always a desirable option. That transit is more fuel efficient, produces less greenhouse gases and is better for the environment ought to factor in that decision, too.

It's no shock that much of the opposition to the higher gas tax — and on spending that money on public transit projects like Baltimore's Red Line — comes from the rural parts of the state where transit plays a much smaller role. One would hope such lawmakers would see the benefit in keeping the state's urban and suburban centers economically viable, but that doesn't seem to factor into their thinking.

Of course, Maryland could keep separate pots of money for transportation to make sure taxpayers got a one-to-one benefit for what they paid in. But that's a kind of accounting that would hurt rural counties most. How could you justify some expensive bridge or bypass in a sparsely populated Eastern Shore county when most of the gas tax revenue comes from Central Maryland?

We'd be the first to admit that raising the gas tax isn't a cure-all for financing the state's long-term transportation infrastructure demands, particularly as vehicles continue to become more fuel efficient and consumption of gasoline slows and perhaps even drops. But for now, raising the gas tax from its 21-year-old rate — as the House of Delegates agreed to do last week and a majority of the Senate is likely to do soon — is a reasonable step toward meeting Maryland's most pressing transportation needs in the near-term, including its vital transit lines.