The Speaker Relents

June 10, 1991

After staging a one-man filibuster for six months, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell has endorsed higher transportation taxes. That is good news for the state's economy, for highway travelers and for the state's road-improvement program.

There never was much doubt that Maryland faced a crisis in transportation. Eighteen months ago, state officials bluntly told legislators -- including Mr. Mitchell -- that the cost of expanding roads, repairing bridges and adding mass-transit options would require more revenue this year. Yet when the time came to act, the speaker resisted. Even as the cash reserves dropped to dangerously low levels month after month, Mr. Mitchell refused to budge. Somehow, he said, the Department of Transportation could come up with enough money to make ends meet.

The only way that could happen would be for DOT to continue its freeze on new construction and lose $400 million in federal transportation aid. The freeze already is crippling the local road-building industry and threatens to force numerous companies into bankruptcy. It also could exacerbate the state's current recession.

Under growing pressure from the Schaefer administration, highway contractors and his own House leadership group, Mr. Mitchell finally relented. This paves the way for quick General Assembly approval June 26 of a bill -- which had been passed by the Senate last April -- to raise a variety of motor vehicle fees, some of which have not been increased in 40 years.

Though this action will let the state obtain matching federal aid on interstate projects this summer and fall, it does not end DOT's cash crunch. There still won't be enough money to undertake new projects on state roads and bridges. Nor are nTC there sufficient funds to embark on new light-rail lines, expand the highly successful commuter-rail lines or enlarge the state's bus fleet.

That can be done only if the gasoline tax is raised from its present 18.5 cents. The increase could be five cents or more, which may sound like a lot but which pales in comparison with the sharp jump in gas prices during Saddam Hussein's aggressions in Kuwait.

Legislators may vote on higher gasoline taxes Sept. 24, when the Assembly meets in special session to re-draw the state's congressional districts. The sooner, the better. It will be up to Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, however, to present Mr. Mitchell with a detailed rundown of DOT's top priorities. We expect mass-transit options will be high on his list. Then the ball will be back in the speaker's court to come up with the extra money. Building new roads and light-rail systems is expensive, but such construction is vital to Maryland's future economic growth and prosperity.

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