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Md. transportation funding under scrutiny

Lawmakers are preparing to tackle the growing gap between the state’s transportation needs and its ability to pay for them this fall during a special session of the General Assembly that will be called to redraw congressional districts.

“Certainly you’re going to see revenue discussions,” said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which sets tax policy. “It’s definitely on the agenda.”

Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the gas tax should be raised after being held at 23.5 cents per gallon since 1992.

Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery, said “the sooner we deal with it, the better.”

This year, Garagiola was the leading advocate of legislation that would have raised the gas tax by 10 cents and vehicle registration fees by 50 percent to bring in about $450 million more in transportation revenues. That measure lost steam as gas prices spiked during the session that concluded April 11.

“My preference was to get it done last session. So my next preference is to get it done during the special session,” Garagiola said. “And if we can’t do it there, then the next session. The longer we wait, the worse shape our roads are going to be in, our infrastructure is going to be in, and it’s going to cost more later.”

The comments came after a meeting Gov. Martin O’Malley held with transportation advocates and lawmakers Friday in Columbia. He reviewed and discussed recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding, which has studied a wide range of mechanisms to pay for upkeep and construction of roads, bridges, rail lines and other structures that allow people and goods to move through the state.

“It’s not keeping pace,” O’Malley said of transportation investment in Maryland and across the country.

The commission recommended that the state seek $800 million for transportation projects and maintenance. It also laid out a menu of revenue-raising options for lawmakers and the governor to consider. Raising the gas tax from 23.5 cents per gallon to 33.5 cents and indexing it to inflation would bring in an additional $385 million, the commission estimated. Applying the 6 percent sales tax to gasoline and diesel sales would yield $580 million.

Other options include raising driver license fees by $10 to yield $15 million, bumping transit fares by 25 percent, for $30 million, and raising emissions inspection fees by $10, to bring in $15 million.

While the most lucrative options center on fuel sales, O’Malley cautioned that the state will have to find other avenues to raise transportation dollars as drivers switch to more-efficient vehicles or switch to public transportation.

The governor’s chief of staff, Matthew D. Gallagher, said O’Malley, a Democrat, has not decided when, or how, to address the transportation funding issue that has united the business community in support of higher gas taxes. He said O’Malley will have conversations with General Assembly leaders to help determine what will be on the table in the fall.

“All options are open at this time,” Gallagher said.

Republicans quickly panned calls for raising transportation taxes. In a press release, state GOP Chairman Alex X. Mooney said “The last thing we can afford are more taxes and fees to subsidize O’Malley’s fiscal mismanagement.”

And the largely Democratic crowd at Friday’s event acknowledged the difficulty in getting the public to buy into tax or fee increases for transportation. Many urged consideration of protections for the Transportation Trust Fund, which has been the target of $1.5 billion in budget raids dating to 1984 but has received only $521.2 million in repayments.

Garagiola’s legislation proposed a constitutional amendment that would have walled off the fund. Members of the commission suggested other options, including requiring a super-majority vote of the General Assembly to allow for such transfers.

“There’s a perception, whether it’s true or not, that the Transportation Trust Fund can be raided too easily,” said Greenbelt Mayor Judith F. Davis.

O’Malley said the effort will have to battle the “loving embrace of austerity that can be very self-defeating, self-damaging.”

“At the end of this long road of hate for government comes a second-rate nation, second-rate states and a second-rate quality of life,” he said. “That’s the winds against which we sail.”