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O’Malley open to gas tax plan

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s chief of staff signaled some flexibility on transportation funding Monday, saying the administration was open to putting money for roads, highways, bridges and mass transit into a raid-proof lock box and tying the state’s gas tax to inflation.

“The administration is very willing and able to engage on those issues,” O’Malley’s aide, Matthew D. Gallagher, told an assembly of business leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual legislative forum at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel.

Gallagher said that had the General Assembly tied the gas tax to inflation when the levy was last increased in 1992, another $4.5 billion would be in the state Transportation Trust Fund, which analysts predict will have enough money to pay only for maintenance by summer 2017.

Later, Gallagher said in an interview that the administration was looking forward to seeing a Senate bill expected to be introduced this week by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s. Miller plans to call for a 3 percent sales tax on gasoline and create regional transportation authorities that could levy a separate tax in conjunction with local governments.

O’Malley had previously said he preferred a “one Maryland” approach, in which a statewide revenue stream would be created for transportation, including the Red Line and Purple Line light rail projects. That stance, however, has softened.

“I think we’re always open,” Gallagher said. “We want people to be confident. … We are pursuing all of our options.”

Gallagher said the fate of the regional model would depend on how Miller defines the regions’ boundaries, a sentiment also expressed last week by House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

“The devils are in the details on that,” Busch said, adding that some jurisdictions could object to their inclusion in a particular region. Busch stressed, however, that he wasn’t ready to tear up the bill before it’s even written.

Many lawmakers believe that Miller’s proposal is unlikely to be the ultimate solution to the state’s transportation funding problem, but the same legislators also think the senator’s plan could jump-start debate that had stalled after O’Malley turned his attention toward gun control, a repeal of the death penalty and the launch of an offshore wind energy program in the early going of the legislative session.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery, an influential member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, expressed some doubt that Miller’s plan would succeed as drafted.

“That may not be the best idea,” Madaleno said. “But we’re going to have a conversation about how to move forward.”

Moving forward is critical, business leaders and lawmakers have said, because cars are often not moving at all on congested state highways. Maryland’s infrastructure problems were emphasized Monday afternoon when the Super Bowl-bound Baltimore Ravens were late to an Inner Harbor pep rally because charter buses carrying the team were stuck in traffic on Interstate 695.

But consensus has not emerged on how to pay for mass transit in urban areas while still maintaining roads and highways in rural areas. Republicans have labeled any increase in the statewide gas tax a nonstarter, and have also asked for some guarantee that money intended for transportation is actually spent on transportation.

The lock box proposal would address one of those issues, preventing raids on the Transportation Trust Fund. O’Malley’s apparent willingness to discuss a lock box pleased House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, who also attended the legislative forum.

But O’Donnell said raising taxes should not be an option, and that the state needed to drop its transit agenda while money remains in short supply.

“We have to delay our Red and Purple lines until the economy improves,” O’Donnell said.

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