The odds of a boost in the state gasoline tax in 1995 have dropped considerably with new projections that show a surplus in Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund.
Figures released yesterday by the Maryland Department of Transportation indicate that the state will earn $150 million more from transportation-related taxes and fees than expected over the next six years.
Officials credited an improved economy, particularly rising automobile sales and the titling fees they generate, for much of the projected surplus. Recent figures showed new-car sales increased 41 percent in October compared with the same month a year ago.
"There is no need for a revenue increase next year," Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said yesterday. "The financial condition of the department has improved."
Mr. Lighthizer said the federal government has also directed assistance to the state's transportation finances. The Federal Highway Administration has recently committed a total of about $100 million for various interstate highway projects.
While that money was expected sometime in the future, the state is receiving it earlier than officials had planned, he said.
The announcement coincides with a report presented this week by the General Assembly's Department of Fiscal Services projecting a $72 million trust fund surplus for the 1995 fiscal year, which ends next June 30. The report concludes that "a transportation revenue increase does not appear necessary until fiscal year 1998."
The upturn in revenue comes at an opportune time for legislators still mindful of the impressive GOP showing in the last election. Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey's tax-cut promise brought her within 6,000 votes of returning the Maryland governorship to the Republicans for the first time since Spiro T. Agnew.
The state's gasoline tax is the only levy Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening has so far shown any interest in raising. He has pledged no "general tax increase," but in a postelection news conference he declined to rule out the possibility he might seek to raise gas taxes.
Eric C. Andrus, a spokesman for Mr. Glendening, said the governor-elect has not changed that position. Mr. Glendening, he said, wants to spend more time studying state finances and talking to advisers and legislators. "We're still in a transition period," Mr. Andrus said.
Members of a joint House and Senate committee studying transportation finances have already expressed reservations about a gas tax increase. Maryland's 23.5-cent per gallon tax, the main source of revenue for the trust fund, is among the highest in the nation.
"I don't think our committee will be recommending any kind of tax increase because of this," said Sen. William H. Amoss, D-Harford, the committee's Senate chair.
"I think if we raised the gas tax, we would be harming the state economically. We're just a hair higher
than other states now, but we can't go much higher."
Transportation officials are expected to make their recommendation on how the surplus should be used in mid-January when they submit a revised six-year construction program to the legislature. Transportation spending is held separate from the rest of the state budget.
Still, Mr. Lighthizer emphasized the $150 million is a modest amount for a state that expects to spend more than $12.6 billion on transportation over the next six years. At best, this may forestall a gas tax increase for one or two years, he said.
The problem, he said, is that the state continues to rely heavily on the relatively flat returns from the gas tax to finance not only roads but two growing urban transit systems, the Mass Transit Administration which operates in the Baltimore area and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
"You probably will have to do something in a year," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee who last month lost his bid for re-election. "We can't just keep putting it off."