ANNAPOLIS – The Senate Friday approved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s transportation bill after legislators made last-minute attempts to hike gas taxes and allocate at least half the funds to mass transit projects.
All told, the bill would generate about $230 million for transportation in fiscal year 2005.
Vehicle owners will bear much of the burden for road and transit costs: About $150 million would come from higher vehicle registration fees.
Biennial car registration fees would rise from $81 to $128 — a hike of $23.50 a year. Registration for heavy vehicles — over 3,700 pounds — would increase $72 dollars to $180 every two years.
The bill would also raise miscellaneous Motor Vehicle Administration fees, worth $20 million a year, while revised revenues and increased bonding capacities would create another $54 million.
“It’s going to help,” Ehrlich said shortly after the measure passed 29 to 18. “We campaigned on the plank of providing funding for the Transportation Trust Fund. This is the first step in the right direction.”
Ehrlich has promised to build the controversial Inter-county Connector, and vowed to improve transportation corridors generally. Projects already on the books include the Hughesville Bypass, Baltimore Beltway improvements and an enhanced intersection at Route 355 and Randolph Road.
Critics knocked the proposal as a car tax and attempted to tack on unpopular provisions that would have generated more money for roads and transit, including a 2-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase proposed by Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, D-Montgomery.
The governor would reject any such provision, said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset.
Residents living on fixed incomes would be hurt most by the fee hikes, said Teitelbaum.
It was defeated 34 to 12.
Another amendment, proposed by Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, would have devoted half the bill’s revenue to mass transit, which he said alleviates traffic and gets people moving.
Stoltzfus opposed Pinsky’s amendment saying the Transportation Department needs flexibility to determine which projects to funded.
That amendment was voted down 36 to 10.
With success in the Senate and the House, the bill will now move on to Ehrlich, whom administration officials said would very likely approve it.
“We see today’s victory as the glass being two-thirds full,” said Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan. He said he was still disappointed the House Ways and Means Committee decided to delete provisions to generate about $100 million more for transportation.
The measure fails to meet goals set by The Hellmann Commission, a transportation task force that identified $17 billion in road needs for the state. The commission recommended increasing capital investments by $300 million a year to begin addressing Maryland’s road woes.
Sen. John Giannetti, D-Prince George’s, told legislators he represents one of Maryland’s largest “parking lots” — often-gridlocked Laurel.
“This is an easy vote,” he said.
But the funds raised wouldn’t be enough to address a lot of transportation needs, he added.
Transportation advocates said they were pleased with the measure, but initially hoped for a better outcome.
“The public has no assurance that increased fees will result in a better transportation system,” said John White, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
And transit has a role to play in the future of Maryland’s transportation, White added. Rail and bus services could help relieve busy roads and alleviate road woes.
“In Maryland we need a new funding stream to make that happen for transit. The current system shortchanges both systems.”