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Editorial: Get serious about transportation funding

At last, we’re hearing serious talk from our governor about an issue that can no longer be ignored. But that talk must lead to action.

We’re talking about the sorry state of Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund and the obvious and pressing need to pump money into it so the state can begin building badly needed projects in mass transit, roads, bridges and rail.

No matter how you slice it, part of the strategy to replenish the fund is almost certain to include an increase in the state’s gasoline tax, last raised in 1992 and not indexed for inflation. But that prospect raises the dreaded words “tax increase,” which many politicians these days regard as a politically toxic phrase never to be uttered in public.

Gov. Martin O’Malley met with members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding last week along with a goodly assortment of transportation advocates and lawmakers. From that meeting came encouraging, even courageous words from two Montgomery County lawmakers.

“Certainly you’re going to see revenue discussions,” said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, calling for a gas tax increase as part of that process.

Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, another Montgomery County Democrat, also advocated a gas tax increase.

In this year’s legislative session, Mr. 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 legislation failed, thanks in part to no support from the governor. Now Mr. Garagiola wants to take another shot during the special session for redistricting this fall.

The blue ribbon commission gave Mr. O’Malley a grim report in March, saying “the state’s transportation system finds itself on the verge of financial collapse” without an infusion of as much as $800 million.

Yet the governor, who muscled the largest package of tax increases in state history through the legislature in 2007, has suddenly gone passive on that front. He carefully did not endorse an increase in the state sales tax on alcoholic beverage tax the last session, saying only that he would sign it if the legislature passed it. It did and he will.

Now he seems to be starting that same tap dance. At last week’s forum, the governor conceded that the transportation fund “is not keeping pace with the state’s needs,” but he also lamented what he called a “fashionable hate for government” that makes it tough to invest in long-range infrastructure projects.

Speaking to the Maryland Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday night, Mr. O’Malley urged business leaders to join the debate over how to increase transportation funding but stopped short of committing himself to a specific solution.

Excuse us, Governor, but you were preaching to the choir. The Chamber already supports a gas tax increase. You’re the same Martin O’Malley who easily won re-election six months ago over an opponent who tried to brand you as a tax-and-spend liberal. This is Maryland, not tea party headquarters. It’s time to step out front and lead on an issue that will affect Maryland citizens and businesses for decades to come.