Paying for Roads and Transit

August 07, 1994

Maryland's candidates for governor don't talk about it too loudly, but there's a tax increase on the horizon, regardless of who wins in November. Campaign rhetoric about "no new taxes" will give way next January to the reality of a transportation trust fund quickly running out of money.

When confronted on this issue, the candidates hem and haw, dancing around the key question: How should we pay for this state's future road-building and mass-transit needs?

Here, for instance, is what Republican Helen Bentley told the Greater Baltimore Committee back in June. She endorsed more spending on mass transit and highways and then remarked, "Somehow we have to work out this funding. . ."

Democrat Parris Glendening, at the same forum, talked of road and rail improvements and lightly brushed upon the "T"-word controversy, "We will need an alternative" to the gasoline tax, he said.

Republican Ellen Sauerbrey spoke of privatizing roads and transit lines to pay for the state's transportation needs. Democrat Mary Boergers came closest to favoring a statewide tax to support roads and light rail, then retreated by adding, "Maryland has to learn to live within its means."

Unless a new tax is adopted in the next few years, Maryland won't be able to build any new roads, bridges or rail lines. Both the state Department of Transportation and the legislature's analysts agree on that point.

Revenues flowing into the transportation trust fund -- gas tax receipts, auto license and tag fees, mass transit fares, airport and port fees -- are growing at just 2 percent a year. But debt-service costs and the expenses of running mass-transit lines are rising much faster. So are road-repair costs. Something's got to give.

Raising the gasoline tax, now at 23.5 cents per gallon, isn't likely. It is unpopular with many drivers and amounts to a user-fee that in part subsidizes other forms of transportation. So the next governor probably will look elsewhere for funds. One option frequently discussed: a half-penny or penny rise in the state's sales tax.

Since this extra money would be marked for expanded mass transit and more and better roads throughout the state, such a revenue-raiser might be accepted by Marylanders. It certainly makes more sense than a regional sales tax that could prove highly divisive, pitting one region against another, without solving the overall problem.

A legislative panel is examining this problem. "We need to do something now," said Sen. Laurence Levitan. He's right. Candidates for governor should be just as forthright. If any of them wants to display real leadership, here is a perfect issue.

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