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Donald C. Fry: Myths, reality and transportation revenue

As lawmakers in Annapolis debate a proposed gas tax increase and other measures to boost long-stagnant revenue to pay for Maryland’s transportation infrastructure, they will be buffeted with information about transportation funding, some of it lacking in detail or credibility.

Critics of proposals to increase Maryland’s gas tax — our state’s primary source of transportation revenue — find themselves voicing popular “facts” that get repeated often these days but are simply not accurate.

Of course, everyone is entitled to air their opinions on issues. But for lawmakers to make the best decisions possible, it’s important for them to be able to separate myth from reality.

Here are some transportation-funding myths being touted in Annapolis and in recent op-ed commentary around the state:

MYTH: A 15-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax rate would give Maryland the highest gas tax in the nation.

REALITY: Maryland’s gas tax would rank higher, but it would be far from the highest — even with a 15-cent per gallon increase, which the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding is recommending be phased in over three years. Maryland’s gas tax rate of 23.5 cents per gallon currently ranks 30th-highest (21st-lowest) among the states and the District of Columbia, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Even if no other states increase their gas tax rates during the next three years, Maryland would rank no higher than 10th — not first — after 2014.

MYTH: Gov. Martin O’Malley has cut highway special fund spending by 20 percent and increased public transportation funding by 30 percent.

REALITY: Maryland has historically funded highways and transit evenly. Of capital and operating spending from the transportation fund budgeted to highway and transit agencies over the next six years, 51.2 percent is allocated to highways and 48.8 percent for transit, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation’s consolidated transportation program for FY 2011–2016.

MYTH: A proposed constitutional amendment to protect Transportation Trust Fund revenue automatically increases gas taxes without a vote.

REALITY: There has never been any provision in any proposed constitutional amendment that would arbitrarily increase the gas tax without a legislative vote. The sole purpose of proposed constitutional amendments has been to ensure that transportation funds are used for transportation purposes.

MYTH: Increasing transportation spending can create only a small percentage of the more than 49,000 construction jobs the state has lost to the recession.

REALITY: Thousands of new construction jobs would be a welcome byproduct of increasing revenue to the state’s transportation fund. But the primary purpose of the additional revenue is to improve mobility — a core element of any competitive business climate. The state needs to significantly increase revenue to its Transportation Trust Fund to begin addressing a massive backlog in highway, transit, port and airport infrastructure projects that have been planned but not funded for construction. This backlog has resulted from at least a decade of stagnant revenue to the fund.

A ‘good time’ to raise taxes?

Finally, opponents of increasing transportation revenue voice the now-familiar mantra that “There couldn’t be a worse time for a gas tax increase.”

Such reasoning prompts the logical question: “When is a good time?” It implies that there is, theoretically, a “good” time to increase taxes, presumably during better periods of economic growth.

But the legislature hasn’t found a “good time” in the last 20 years.

The fact is, the current transportation funding crisis is not a myth. It exists, in large part, because for two decades — a period of time that encompassed several “good” economic cycles — state lawmakers declined to increase the state’s gas tax, the primary source of transportation revenue that allows the state to keep up with emerging transportation needs and rising construction and operating costs.

During that time, estimated economic costs of congestion in Maryland have increased at least 1,200 percent. The Washington, D.C., corridor is now documented as the most-congested in the nation, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. The Baltimore region ranks as the sixth-most-congested region in the country, and the worst-congested among regions with populations of less than 3 million people.

Addressing Maryland’s growing transportation funding crisis is no longer an issue of timing. It’s about taking long-delayed action to strengthen our state’s transportation infrastructure, which is among our most important assets for economic growth and maintaining a high quality of life.

Donald C. Fry, president & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His email address is