Paying for roads and mass transit

May 06, 1994

Everyone wants more and better roads. And a first-class airport nearby. And a thriving port. And a convenient web of mass-transit stops linking home to work and to downtown. The problem is paying for all these transportation necessities.

By decade's end, the state will barely have enough revenue coming in to cover the upkeep of these facilities. It will have no money to expand or improve its transportation network. While expenses are expected to grow at 8 percent a year, revenue from taxes that pay for transportation projects (gas tax, auto registration, titling tax and corporate income tax) is expected to rise at only 3 percent. Where's the new money to come from?

In the past, governors have gone begging to legislators seeking higher taxes on gasoline and registration fees. But officials feel drivers may have reached the limit of their tolerance. Besides, these revenue sources aren't inflation sensitive.

Yet there are pressing needs. Highway congestion along the Baltimore and Washington beltways can be horrendous at rush hours. It's bound to get worse. Meanwhile, mass transit remains in its infancy in the Baltimore region; only a couple of truncated north-south routes exist. Commuting from a suburban home to a suburban workplace is especially difficult if you don't own a car.

Both mass transit and highway construction are expensive. Compounding the problem is a reduction in transportation dollars from a cash-strapped Washington. That trend, too, is likely to continue. "Clearly, the challenge is to find a way to fund mass transit," notes O. James Lighthizer, the state's transportation secretary.

That's what a joint legislative work group is trying to accomplish in time to present a plan to the incoming governor next January. The group is headed by Sen. William H. Amoss of Harford County, who led a similar study group in 1991. He knows the extent of the problem and the potential solutions. But finding a new taxing source that meets with legislative and gubernatorial approval could be a formidable task.

Here are some options: Dedicate a portion of the sales tax to transportation; add a penny to the sales tax in the Baltimore-Washington region for mass transit; use lottery revenues to finance mass transit; build limited-access highways by charging tolls on those roads; allow private developers to build and operate toll roads; impose a surcharge on diesel fuel for heavy vehicles as do Virginia and Pennsylvania; make the gas tax a variable tax to keep pace with inflation; apply a sales tax to automotive services, including parking.

Any of these options will involve increased taxation. That is inevitable if road and transit projects are to go forward, which is essential for Maryland to continue its growth and economic development.

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