By Alyson Klein and Jamie Wellington
ANNAPOLIS – Commuters sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Maryland’s roadways may not have thought of the wasted gas and time as a tax – but Secretary of Transportation Robert L. Flanagan sure does.
He pledged Tuesday at a Transportation Task Force hearing to reduce this so-called “congestion tax” by increasing overall transportation spending as much as $4.7 billion over the next six years to pay for much needed projects.
But most of the revenue-raising options suggested by the task force include increases in more traditional taxes and fees on users of the transportation system.
“We can’t ignore the fact that we’re in total gridlock and we need funds. It’s extremely important that we address the problem head-on rather than skirting the issue by cutting here and raising there,” said Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, who represents one of several areas in Maryland where daily traffic jams are a fact of life.
Department staff said Maryland will need to raise at least $300 million per year in additional revenue to meet that $4.7 billion goal, even if money borrowed from the Transportation Trust Fund last session is not repaid.
The staff presented lawmakers with a menu of eight options including increases in vehicle registration fees and the motor vehicle titling tax, as well as much-debated increases in gasoline and sales taxes.
For example, the gas tax, which has not been raised in 10 years, could go up by as much as 10 cents while vehicle registration fees could increase by $60 under the options.
“The alternative is that we allow our transportation network to remain as it is, making no improvements, allowing congestion to grow,” said Jack Cahalan, Department of Transportation spokesman. “There’s not a section of this state you can go to where they don’t talk about needs for transportation improvements.”
The notion of a “congestion tax” came from a study released earlier this year by the Texas Transportation Institute examining the cost of gridlock in gas, missed working hours and wear and tear on vehicles for the average driver, Cahalan said.
Washington-area commuters pay an average of $670 per year to cover these costs, while Baltimore commuters spend about $450 a year, the study reported.
Improving the state’s highway system would go a long way to lowering these costs, Cahalan said.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not said which option he prefers. However, he has said in the past that while he does not favor a gasoline tax increase, he has not ruled it out completely.
“Normally we’re opposed to tolls and to gas tax increases, but under current situation, we feel that the Transportation Trust Fund needs to be repaid to address congestion,” said John White, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
During the last session, lawmakers approved a transfer of roughly $300 million to the general fund from the Transportation Trust Fund to balance the budget.
“If you’re going to raise the gas tax, the money should be for transportation. Don’t raise gas tax and then take the money out the back door,” White said.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, said the Republican caucus would also be “very reluctant” to raise the gas tax.
“Our gas tax in Maryland is 23.5 cents right now as compared to Virginia.” which has a gas tax of 17 cents, Stoltzfus said. “If we increase our gas tax by . . . 10 cents, that’s 33 cents a gallon for gas, just in the tax, we’re almost double what Virginia is and it would really drive a lot of the gas industry out of Maryland.”
He said that, while rural delegates acknowledge the need “to work as a whole state,” some of his constituents feel it is unfair that they must share the burden of financing Baltimore and Washington mass transit systems.
“Rural folks are really frustrated. Why should highway travelers pay for all the transit?” he said. “It might be something we need to consider and change.”
Other Republicans are awaiting a signal from Ehrlich to determine which plan they will support.
“The governor needs to take some lead on this. Being in his party, I need to know what direction he is heading,” said Delegate George C. Edwards, R-Garrett. “I’m sure we’ll find that out sometime not too far down the road. No pun intended.” – 30 – CNS-10-22-03