Proposed State Gas Tax Called Fuel For Road Projects

February 11, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Sen. John Cade, R-Severna Park recently compared driving along the county's ever-expanding and detour-twisted highways to being trapped "inside a pinball machine."

The prospect of the machine forever gone tilt is the reason Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants a new 5-percent state sales tax on gasoline to pay for improvements to state roads. Unless the State House passes the gas tax and other motor vehicle fee increases, the state Department of Transportation warns that road projects worth $373 million are threatened for fiscal years 1991 and 1992.

Schaefer suspended plans for all new road projects in December, when projections showed transportation revenues will fall almost $200 million short of original 1991-1992 estimates.

The suspension includes 42 long-planned Anne Arundel improvements that would relieve traffic congestion from Baltimore to Annapolis to Washington. This year's endangered projects range in cost and size from the $43.4-million, six-lane reconstruction of Route 50 between Davidsonville Road and Interstate 97 to the $31,000 installation of traffic lights at the intersection of Mountain and Tick Neck roads in Pasadena.

Other projects stalled this year include a $39.8 million expansion of Interstate 97 to eight lanes between Quarterfield and Dorsey roads and the $22.8million construction of an interchange at U.S. 50 and Routes 2 and 450.

Without more money, the department would fall $583 million short for projects planned around the state over the next five years, transportation secretary O. James Lighthizer warned legislators in a letter two weeks ago.

Among the jeopardized projects for fiscal 1992, which begins July 1:

* $88.1 million to extend Route 100, first from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to Route 170 and then to the Route 100 terminus at Route 3.

* $77.9 million to expand Interstate 97 between Dorsey Road and the Baltimore and Annapolis Boulevard and also from B&A Boulevard to the Baltimore beltway.

* $12.8 million to expand Mountain Road to five lanes between Route 100 and PinehurstRoad.

County Executive Robert R. Neall has been lobbying the General Assembly in support of Schaefer's tax program. He hopes to complete the county's $1.2 billion highway network begun under Lighthizer, his predecessor.

The controversial Eastern Bypass, a proposed superhighway from Virginia to Crofton in western Anne Arundel, was consigned to the budget scrap heap last week.

As they contemplate raising an additional $1.5 billion over the next five years, many county legislators say taxpayers have run out of quarters to feed the pinball machine.

"I'm just not sure that government should be able to slap a new tax on any time they think they need more revenues," Delegate John Astle, D-Annapolis, said Friday. A colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, Astle gave up chairmanship of the county delegation Friday to report for active duty.

Astle, who is opposed to the gas tax, said trimming road building plans could be in the state's best interests.

"Let me tell you my doomsday prophecy. We are going to see a decline in the quality of life in this society, not just in Maryland but across the country," he said. "As long as it's convenient for people to just get in their cars and go, they're not going to consider other alternatives."

Some legislators, like Delegate Tyras S. Athey, D-Jessup, agree that more money is needed for transportation. But he questioned imposing the state's first sales tax on the price of gas, rather than simply increasing the 18 cent per gallon tax. The sales tax has been widely criticized as a "tax on a tax."

Though no bill has been introduced, Athey said a proposal is circulating to boost the excise tax 6 cents beginning July 1, then replacing that increase with a 5-percent sales tax on the average price of gas after six months.

"What if the price goes down?" asked Athey, a member of the Ways and Means committee. "Are we then going to lower the tax?"

In 1987, when transportation officials last won a 5-cent tax increase, they warned they would need more money in 1991. Still, some legislators question how the department spent what it had.

Of 53 road projects planned four years ago, 12 have been delayed. And huge cost discrepancies for the regional light rail system and rehabilitation of the Port of Baltimore have also made some people wary of raising new taxes.

"It's like coming back and saying, 'I did part of my job but I ran out of money and now I need more,' "Delegate John Gary, R-Millersville said.

Gary also opposes a request to transfer almost $100 million from the Transportation Trust Fund this year to help trim the state's $400 million budget deficit.

"More roads would beget more sprawl would beget more roads and would destroy the natural heritage of Maryland," said said Sen. Gerald Winegrad, D-Annapolis, an environmental lawyer.

Winegrad opposes any additional road projects until the state adopts a comprehensive land use plan like that propsed by the Governor's Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Bay Region.

Athey agreed, but said the state will face a Catch-22 if it tries to pay for mass transit but cannot rely on federally subsidized highways or taxing gas and motor vehicles.

"We're going to have to find another way to raise money," he said. "How we do that and where and when, I don't have any damn idea."

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