Md. transport goals may need new taxes

Higher gas, sales tax, use of general fund among panel options

July 22, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Members of a new gubernatorial commission say meeting Maryland's daunting transportation needs may require boosting the state's gas tax, sales tax and motor vehicle fees -- and even tapping into the general fund, which for years has been off-limits for transportation projects.

The 30-member state Commission on Transportation Investment, which holds its first meeting in two weeks, will evaluate long-range transportation needs and recommend funding options in a report to Gov. Parris N. Glendening at the end of the year.

With the state's coffers overflowing with surplus revenues, tax increases of any kind are likely to be a hard sell politically.

But Maryland's projected transportation expenses from population and job growth and big-ticket items such as replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to Virginia total an estimated $400 million a year -- far outstripping potential proceeds from a gas tax increase.

"People have started to realize that the problem is so severe, the usual nickel gas tax increase isn't going to do it," said Jack Kintslinger, a transportation engineer and commission member. "It would keep the ship afloat for maybe a couple of years, but at some point, there has to be a long-range solution, not just a Band-Aid."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the state's transportation problems are greater than highways alone, and expecting motorists at the fuel pump to foot most of the bills is not a fair solution.

"At this point, I can't justify some single-minded increase in the gas tax, but we can certainly justify that we need more money for transportation," she said.

That's a message Maryland residents can expect to hear over and over in coming months. On the surface, with a budget surplus more than $350 million higher than expected in March and with a $79 million surplus in the state transportation fund, Maryland seems flush, and a bid for tax increases would appear doomed.

But transportation planners say that during the next 20 years, Maryland will be home to a million more people and 400,000 more jobs, burdening highways and transit. If the state waits a year or two to begin planning for that shift, it will be too late, they say.

The state is facing other big projects, including the $2 billion replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge near Washington, the possible construction of an Intercounty Connector through Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and dredging Baltimore Harbor to accommodate larger ships. Altogether, the projects require about $400 million more a year for the foreseeable future.

A nickel-a-gallon gas tax increase -- the traditional method of boosting transportation funds -- would generate about $125 million more annually. A sales tax increase, up from the current 5 percent, is considered more palatable because some neighboring states already charge 6 percent.

Committee members say they expect to discuss broadening the state sales tax base, possibly to include service businesses, or dedicating a percentage of the sales tax to transportation projects.

Whatever recommendations result, no one expects an easy sell, either to the General Assembly or the public.

"I think it's about 50-50 whether they'll get anything passed," said Drew Cobb, of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce transportation committee. "They're going to have a hard time convincing the public. These are long-range issues, and I don't think it's easy for the public to perceive them."

The 30-member commission includes House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and 11 other legislators. Its first meeting will be Aug. 2 in Annapolis, and the group will convene every two weeks until the end of the year, when its report is due. The group will travel the state for a series of public meetings.

Maryland's transportation landscape is complex. The state funds an airport, a shipping port, the MARC rail system, a highway system many say is on the verge of being overwhelmed, and two metropolitan transit systems in Washington and Baltimore. Finding solutions will be equally complex.

"When you throw in the business and environmental concerns and competing demands for services, we're going to need a wide-open approach to solving these problems," said John Davey, co-chairman of the commission. "It's going to be a very tough job."

In January, Glendening backed away from a plan to seek a nickel increase in the gas tax. Instead, he supported a rise in the cigarette tax of $1 per pack. One tax increase was all the public was likely to stomach, many legislators say.

"Broadening the sales tax base or increasing the tax are, I think, uphill arguments," said Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican and an appointee to the commission. "The legislature already passed one tax increase this last session. To talk about another next year in the face of record surpluses I don't know."

But Madden said he favors loosening up general fund money for mass transportation.

The commission's final funding suggestions will likely gather money from various sources, said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat. "We can have no one method," she said. "I think we're going to need multiple choices.

"We've swept these issues under the carpet and put our heads in the sand, some of us, long enough. What is required, I'm sure, will be a lot of money, and I don't think a nickel gas tax increase is sufficient."

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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