Gas tax gets a second look

Anyone who believes that political stalemate over raising taxes or a preference for deferring hard choices were problems unique to Congress has probably never been to Annapolis. Even when one party dominates both chambers, as the Democrats do in the Maryland State House, lawmakers are all too frequently loath to stick their necks out for anything controversial if there's any possibility it might be postponed.

Witness last week's debate over Maryland's transportation finances and the possibility of raising the gas tax. Everyone seems to recognize that the status quo is wholly unacceptable. But aside from local officials (who won't have to answer to voters for a state-level tax hike), there was little sign of broad support for a gas tax increase.

It would not be unreasonable to defer the choice if the federal "fiscal cliff," that other profile in legislative cowardice, remains unresolved by President Barack Obama and Congress at the end of the upcoming General Assembly session. Should that happen, and the nation stand on the verge of another economic recession because of ill-considered across-the-board spending cuts and broad tax increases, then yes — perhaps it would not be prudent not to add some immediate statewide tax increase to compound Washington's failure.

But postponing the gas tax decision under any other circumstance is doing no favor to consumers, whether they are poor, middle class or wealthy. Neglect of Maryland's transportation infrastructure — its roads, bridges, public transit, airports and ports — only hurts the economy and job creation.

And make no mistake, that's where the choice stands. The Maryland Transportation Trust Fund is running on empty in terms of capital investment, and the most recent forecast is that it will be reduced to what's known as "system preservation" (meaning little more than pot hole repair) within five years. But it's really worse than that, since several projects planned for the near future, like Baltimore's Red Line light rail project, lack funding and would grind to a halt much earlier.

That means no widening of the Baltimore or Capital beltways; no replacement for the Harry W. Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland; no planned upgrades on Route 295 or MARC's Penn Line or Route 32 in Howard County. All these and many other "wish list" projects so strongly supported by the business community, local governments and the affected communities would have to be deferred.

Might there be another way to pay for them? Analysts say there are some things that could be of marginal help: public-private partnerships on certain projects, redirecting general obligation bonds (which might otherwise pay for different capital projects), or tapping into a federal loan program may provide some modest help. Ultimately, raising the gas tax from its current 1992 funding level remains the best available alternative.

Critics claim that Maryland would not be so desperate for transportation money if millions hadn't been taken out of the trust fund to help balance the state General Fund budget during the economic downturn. But that's simply not true. Those funds have largely been repaid — aside from local aid (known as highway user revenue) that Baltimore City and the county governments saw cut so that other forms of local aid (for education, for instance) were not reduced instead.

Maryland commuters already endure some of the most congested roads and longest travel times in the country. That translates into a financial loss every bit as real as a dime added to the gas tax. What Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed last year — gradually applying the 6 percent sales tax to gasoline — still strikes us as a reasonable, balanced approach that might raise the cost of a gallon of gasoline 18 cents within three years. Considering the volatility of petroleum prices (the average for regular unleaded in Maryland has dropped 50 cents since mid-September), it probably wouldn't even be noticed.

What would consumers get in return for that? It could leverage billions of dollars in transportation spending, create thousands of jobs and pump up the state's economy at a time of potential federal cutbacks when a bit of stimulus may be in order.

It's time politicians paid less attention to the polls and the public's knee-jerk reaction to the words "gas tax" and paid a little more attention to their long-term interests. It's easy to give voters what they want — more spending and less taxes — but that's exactly how government gets into a mess, whether it's a fiscal cliff or a pot-hole-strewn road network.

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