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Editorial: Taxes and transportation

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. deserves credit for his recent efforts in advancing the concept of regional funding mechanisms for Maryland’s much-needed transportation upgrades, but his vision of a more unified Maryland is likely out of reach.

Miller’s proposal, which is still being drafted, will call for the creation of regional authorities with the power to generate tax revenue from their own constituents for road projects. This effectively mitigates the burden on state leaders, who have found themselves in the middle of a rural-urban conflict over whether suburban/exurban road upgrades (think single-person vehicles on heavily clogged interstates) or urban mass transit projects (think Metro, light rail and bus riders) are more important. The position of elected officials at the state level in this debate has been particularly tricky in recent years as money from Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund has been siphoned off to fund other needs.

There’s no denying that Miller’s proposal will spark much-needed conversation and, hopefully, some action. Some experts estimate that Maryland needs $1 billion or more per year to fund upgrades to its rapidly aging network of roads and mass transit systems.

Here’s the concern with Miller’s concept: While the plan would effectively limit ill will directed toward state representatives for their perceived urban or rural biases, it would not eliminate that ill will. Instead, it simply redirects that ill will toward county and municipal governments, which makes this feel like more of a political maneuver.

This is the political wizardry that Miller is known for. In a single proposal, he presents the opportunity to deflect anger from state officials while taking steps to improve quality-of-life and development issues that have been plaguing the state’s economic engines for years.

An across-the-board gas tax increase would anger just about all drivers — according to a recent Gonzales poll, 94 percent of Marylanders recognize the need to maintain and improve the transportation system, yet 73 percent oppose a 10-cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax. Shifting the onus of revenue generation to local authorities stems that anger somewhat, in part based on the theory that residents of urban areas are willing to pay a bit more if it saves them time on their daily commutes. Roughly 30 percent of Maryland workers work in a jurisdiction other than the one in which they live.

No doubt, however, that at least some of those residents would be less than thrilled at paying more without their rural brothers and sisters having an equal stake in the effort.

Setting aside Miller’s political aims, there remains great benefit in putting forth a concept that promises a path forward. The state’s transportation system has fallen by the wayside for far too long, and with signs of growth in the business sector and unemployment on the decline, even more vehicles will join the hundreds of thousands that already choke the state’s highways.

If Miller’s proposal does indeed provide the spur for legislative action on this most desperate need, then any ulterior motives can certainly be forgiven.