MVA bill would pave the way for fee increases, new roads

June 16, 1991|By Doug Birch

Maybe it was the 80-degree heat, the lines or the mind-numbing paperwork. But a string of motorists trudging out of the Glen Burnie Motor Vehicle Administration office last week were fatalistic about a plan to raise $44 million annually through steep increases in dozens of motor vehicle fees.

Billy Coral, a 42-year-old house salesman who had just picked up vehicle title, seemed skeptical but resigned. (The fee for registering most cars, currently between $1 and $3, would rise to $12 under the plan.) Mr. Coral said he wouldn't mind paying the $12. But he wanted to be sure the money went for road maintenance and reconstruction and feared much of it would be siphoned off for other uses.

What about a dime increase in the state's 18.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax, still being urged by road contractors, engineers, unions and transportation officials? "I'd rather pay more for the cigarette tax," the Glen Burnie resident said, explaining that he is trying to give up smoking but wants to keep driving.

A harried-looking Sarah Tate, 56, of Glen Burnie, walked out of the MVA with her new blue-and-green Chesapeake Bay license tag and registration. (The increases would not have affected Mrs. Tate on this visit: No change has been proposed for the state's 5 percent vehicle excise tax and motor vehicle registration fees, which average $27.)

"I guess they're going to have to do something for roads, right?" she said. "What can we say? They're going to raise it somewhere. I'd rather not see the gas tax go higher."

"There don't seem to me like there's much you can do," said William Kirby, an 82-year-old retired machinist from Arbutus.

On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means and Senate Budget and Taxation committees plan to hold a joint hearing on a bill to permit the MVA to raise some or all of the more than 70 fees it charges motorists, truckers and the auto industry. The measure will be taken up during a one-day special budget session on June 28.

Susanne Brogan, an aide to House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, said the bill would permit the state Motor Vehicle Administration to decide which fees it wants to raise and by how much. The only limitation would be that the MVA could not set fees at a level where it recovered more than 85 percent of its operating cost.

Now, the MVA raises $29 million -- or about 37 percent -- of its $78 million budget with fees. (That's not counting the state's 5 percent vehicle excise tax, which MVA officials do not consider one of their fees.)

Based on current revenue and spending figures, the bill would give the MVA the power to increase fees by about $44 million annually. Ms. Brogan said the bill would permit the MVA to issue regulations implementing the new fees as early as July 1.

State transportation officials, meanwhile, say if they are asked to set higher fees themselves, they will probably implement 71 increases proposed in a bill approved by the Senate but defeated by the House during the recent legislative session.

That bill would have raised the cost of a title for a new vehicle from $1 to $12, for a used vehicle from $3 to $12, for a learner's permit from $22 to $25 and for a new license from $20 to $30. Highway professionals also would be hit: The bill would have increased the price of a truck driver's license application from $10 to $20 and the fee to license auto factories in the state from $375 to $1,000.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has warned that, without the money the higher fees will raise, the state will not be able to match -- and stands to forfeit -- $250 million in federal highway aid. The largest chunks of that money are earmarked for construction of a new Severn River bridge and expansion of U.S. 50 south of Annapolis.

The state Department of Transportation has frozen almost all new construction, citing a sharp drop in revenue from the state's 5 percent vehicle titling tax and gas tax revenues. In all, the transportation trust fund will come up about $50 million short for the fiscal year ending June 30, officials say.

At a joint House and Senate meeting on the fees last week, some legislators seemed as skeptical -- and as resigned -- as the motorists in Glen Burnie.

Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, scolded the administration for borrowing $75 million from the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the state's toll roads and bridges, for the controversial Baltimore-area light-rail project while letting road projects wither.

Delegate Michael R. Gordon, D-Montgomery, also questioned why the Baltimore light-rail project was proceeding despite the DOT's financial woes. "The administration has the power to protect what it wants to protect," he asserted.

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