The needed route on roads and transit

Transportation, taxes: Without added revenue, Maryland cannot meet demands of growth.

July 27, 1999

BY 2020, Maryland will boast 1 million new residents and 400,000 new jobs. But look at the state's road and transit infrastructure. It's starved for funds and could be incapable of handling the growth.

State officials must get to work finding ways to fund needed transportation improvements.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has avoided raising transportation taxes for five years, preferring to streamline agencies, reorder priorities and refinance debt at lower rates to stretch existing dollars. Yet he is still $400 million short of the annual amount needed for the state's transportation priorities.

Could higher taxes be in the near future?

It's possible. A transportation commission starts meeting next week to recommend a way to find the extra funds to build a replacement for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, build an east-west road linking Rockville and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, dredge Baltimore harbor to accommodate larger ships and widen existing beltways and crowded commuter roads.

Some experts say a 5-cent rise in the gasoline tax, to 28.5 cents, is almost certain. But that won't raise nearly enough. Adding higher fees for permits, licenses and tags gets you only halfway there.

A higher sales tax? That suggestion doesn't have political appeal in a booming economy.

The commission should take a hard look at all options. Why not, for instance, dedicate to transportation some of the growing sales-tax revenue pouring into the state treasury? Earmarking 0.5 percent from the state's 5 percent sales tax might be ideal. When packaged with higher transportation user fees, the extra sales-tax money would pay for the state's priority projects.

The governor and state lawmakers could also look at broadening the sales tax to include services that are exempt. Even a slight widening of the sales-tax base could free up money for transportation.

If economic growth continues to generate large surpluses, why shouldn't some of that money be dedicated to transportation? It would close the funding gap without further burdening taxpayers. That's a goal the commission, the governor and legislators should be able to agree upon.

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