Paying the Transportation Toll

December 30, 1991

Sooner or later, state legislators will have to face the reality that there isn't enough money in the state's treasury to continue underwriting construction projects aimed at upgrading Maryland highways, bridges and mass-transit systems. The longer lawmakers wait before increasing the state gasoline tax, the more painful the political fallout will be for them.

Maryland finds itself in an awkward position. Though the state is in line to receive $2.7 billion in federal funds for roads and mass transit over the next six years, a lack of cash in Annapolis could force the state to refuse $1.2 billion worth of federal aid. Even if the state borrows money from Washington to get these projects going, Annapolis must re-pay its loan in two years or face a cutoff of future federal assistance.

Under normal circumstances, state legislators would lean heavily toward postponing any gas-tax increase as long as possible, which would mean waiting until the federal loan comes due. But that requires the legislature to raise taxes in 1994 -- an election year for members of the General Assembly. No incumbent in his or her right mind is going to hike taxes 10 weeks before primary election day.

So General Assembly leaders ought to grapple with the gas-tax question now. It makes sense to do so for a more pressing reason, too. If the state had more cash in its transportation trust fund, dozens of additional projects could be launched quickly. That would mean hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of jobs for out-of-work Marylanders and a pump-priming boost for the state's recession-plagued economy.

With new tax revenue, Annapolis could embark on $600 million worth of road and bridge projects over the next 21 months. Another $60 million would be spent on extending the Baltimore light-rail line to Hunt Valley, Pennsylvania Station and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. And there is federal money available for new commuter-rail routes into Washington from Western Maryland and Southern Maryland.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has suggested to legislators that they consider a 5-cent gas tax phased in over three years. If lawmakers structure the increase carefully, they can provide sufficient funds immediately for an agreed-upon list of priority road projects and still avoid raising the gas tax during the 1994 election campaign.

While General Assembly incumbents would surely benefit from such an approach, Maryland's economy would be the biggest beneficiary. Improving the state's highway network is good for business development, for those who travel these roads and especially for the thousands of Marylanders whose well-being is directly or indirectly linked to the state's transportation industry.

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