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One-third of Senate likes proposal to increase gas tax, registration fees

Nicholas Sohr//Daily Record Business Writer//February 8, 2011

One-third of Senate likes proposal to increase gas tax, registration fees

By Nicholas Sohr

//Daily Record Business Writer

//February 8, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — A proposal backed by nearly one-third of the Maryland Senate would add 10 cents to the state’s gas tax and raise the vehicle registration fee by half to pump $450 million annually into transportation projects.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery, includes a constitutional amendment that would protect transportation funds from raids of budget-balancing governors and lawmakers. It would also index the gas tax to inflation in 2013, but cap yearly increases at 1 cent.

“There’s a backlog of road and transit needs in the state,” Garagiola said. “We’re falling behind, and we’re falling behind to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.”

But an increase to the gas tax, which has not been raised since 1992, when the General Assembly set it at 23.5 cents, will be a hard sell this year.

“People take roads for granted. They take bridges for granted. They take rapid transit for granted, but it has to be paid for,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George’s.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said momentum for the gas tax will have to come from local and county governments that have seen more than 90 percent of their state transportation aid used to balance the state’s books in the last two years.

“I don’t think there’s any question you need some kind of funding source for transportation,” Busch said. “The question is, is there the political will to do it?”

Miller, who is one of Garagiola’s 13 co-sponsors on SB 714, said lawmakers are looking at a wide range of options to refill the state’s transportation coffers. Another bill in the Senate would add a 4-cent sales tax to the price of gas, and Miller said senators are also discussing raising the price of vanity license plates and other fees.

Maryland’s transportation revenue has remained relatively flat since 2004, with 2007 tax increases dedicated to transportation being almost entirely offset by the recession. At the same time, operating costs have eaten up a larger share of the transportation budget, leaving less money for maintenance and expansion.

The state could feel the pinch from the federal government, too. According to state analysts, if Congress brings federal highway aid in line with its own gas tax revenues, Maryland stands to lose about $40 million annually.

And for the last two years, the state has taken about $300 million in local highway aid to balance its budget. O’Malley has proposed to do the same in the coming year. He also wants to take another $100 million from the Transportation Trust Fund and about $4 million in interest earned by the fund to help cover the $1.6 billion budget deficit.

“We’re not happy with the fact the governor borrowed $100 million from the transportation trust fund and put it in the operating budget,” Miller said. “We’re looking to develop a consensus among the body to a solution to the deteriorating roads and bridges, and absence of funds for a Purple Line and a Red Line, for light rail through Southern Maryland, and making improvements in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.”

Indeed, the American Society of Civil Engineers released a report Tuesday that highlighted a range of shortcomings in the state’s transportation network. Bridges fared the best, with a “B-” grade. The “C-” grades for roads and transit placed those systems narrowly in the “mediocre” category.

“The infrastructure is vital for our economy, the mobility of our work force, safety of the environment and our quality of life,” said Frank H. Kaul, president of the Maryland section of ASCE. “Funding for Maryland’s infrastructure is still woefully inadequate while our population’s needs are projected to continue to grow at an alarming rate.”

The study found that many of the state’s bus and train lines, including commuter MARC trains, are run less efficiently and with higher operating costs than the national average, while the light rail and local bus services performed better than average.

A majority of the state’s roads are nearing needed major renovation, or reconstruction, according to the study. One-quarter of the roads were built before 1930, and 84 percent are more than three decades old.

“We don’t have adequate capacity in our roads, and deterioration is leading to even less capacity,” Kaul said.

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