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More on the Maryland transportation funding puzzle

Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, the chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, had a frank assessment Wednesday of the General Assembly’s record on the gasoline tax.

“We just didn’t do our job,” he said.

The excise tax on gasoline has been 23.5 cents per gallon since 1992, and before that, gas tax hikes were a regular occurrence in Annapolis as lawmakers tried to keep the revenue stream growing with inflation. (The tax isn’t indexed.)

Kasemeyer expanded on his statement after the hearing Wednesday on transportation revenue options. He said the legislature has avoided many “unpleasant” tax and fee increases over the years, a pattern that backs lawmakers into a corner and forces big increases on the public. The alternative — steady, regular increases — would be better, he said.

“These kinds of fees and taxes and tolling, as long as you know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, there’s an acceptance,” Kasemeyer said.

Some other tidbits I couldn’t shoehorn into my story on the hearing
You can thank SUV drivers for some of the gas tax remaining so low. The high-priced gas-guzzlers that became popular in the late ’90s provided a boost to the gas and titling tax revenues without the legislature having to bump up the gas tax, according to Sen. Ulysses Currie, who chaired the budget committee from 2002 to 2010…

According to legislative analysts, if the gas tax were indexed to the Consumer Price Index in 1992, it would have been 36.5 cents per gallon last year. If it were pegged to the Construction Cost Index, it would have been 41.5 cents. Much of the discussion about the gas tax includes an indexing component. It would save lawmakers from taking regular gas tax votes and could be capped to big increases in a single year…

How much transportation money does Maryland need? The Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding says $800 million — $600 million in new revenue that will allow $200 million in new debt — should do the trick.

Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said the first priority projects from all the counties total some $12 billion. “We need to work with the locals on different kinds of funding,” she said.

The entire list of projects, that runs about $60 billion…

Swaim-Staley said her department saw some positive economic signs in April as the gas tax and tilting tax revenues started to increase. That could mean people are driving more and trucks are hauling more goods, and people are buying cars.

Fall figures, which would include the pre-debt ceiling deal panic, post-debt ceiling deal credit rating panic, wild stock market swings and a disappointing jobs reports period are due out shortly, the secretary said.

She also said Maryland Port Administration has seen “a little bit of a dip” in some of its revenues. The Port of Baltimore had been having a very strong year

Swaim-Staley said her department was “preparing for a shutdown” earlier this month, anticipating Congress wouldn’t extend the federal gas tax and money for state road and transit projects. A six-month extension of federal transportation aid appears likely, but beyond that, the future is cloudy…

Swaim-Staley said the department expects to release the route and mode (bus, light rail, etc.) for the Corridor Cities Transitway this year. The line would run along I-270 in western Montgomery County, an area expecting even more growth…

Maryland has spent about 80 percent of the transportation dollars that came through the economic stimulus package, the secretary said. Most of what remains to be spent is allocated to large projects, including bridge replacement and rehabilitation efforts.

The state received about $610 million for road and transit projects from the stimulus. The American Jobs Act outlined by President Obama last week would send $625 million. Swaim-Staley said the state is hoping for fewer restrictions on how the AJA money can be spent…

Public-private partnerships are one way the state could spend more on transportation without accelerating its run-in with the debt limit, which is now expected to happen in 2017. If the financing and debt is on the private side of the deal, it probably would not count toward the state’s total, Swaim-Staley said…

Speaking of P3s, Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, had high praise for the state’s deal with Ports America Chesapeake. The private port operator has a 50-year lease on the Seagirt Marine Terminal.

“You’re rock stars on Seagirt,” Dinegar said…

Dinegar, who is fast becoming one of the most-quotable business advocates in Annapolis, said the solution to Maryland’s transportation issues can’t stop at the border. Systems like MARC and Virginia Railway Express need to be integrated, he said. Trains in those systems both go into DC, but they stop at Union Station.

“We’re a region that needs to focus on regional transportation,” Dinegar said.