Raise the gas tax

April 23, 2003

IN THE FEW years since neighborhood buses began running in the Hampden and Mondawmin areas, these so-called shuttle bugs have been hailed as a popular convenience. The frequent low-cost shuttles connect with light rail and subway stops, making better use of these substantial investments and helping the state reach its goal of doubling statewide mass transit ridership from 2000 to 2020.

But these days, Maryland is hardly on track toward meeting that ridership goal. And the shuttles? Plans for similar services in South Baltimore, Towson and Fells Point were put on hold last fall, and the state last week said the Hampden and Mondawmin shuttles would run less frequently and their fare would double to $1 a ride.

These proposed changes were announced among other service reductions - and a one-way Baltimore bus, light rail and Metro fare hike from $1.35 to $1.60. State transportation officials say the cuts are targeted at underused routes and, as with the shuttles, those with low fare-recovery rates. They say the fare increase - the system's first in seven years - will help move its overall recovery rate, now down to 36.5 percent, toward the state-mandated level of 40 percent.

But an 18.5 percent rise in costs for mass transit riders, many of whom are low-income, is harder to justify when Maryland has not raised its gasoline tax in 11 years. It's time for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to drop his neutral stance on doing so.

A nickel increase in the state gas tax, raised to 23.5 cents a gallon in 1992, would provide an additional $125 million a year. The new revenue is badly needed to meet a widening gap between state transportation needs and resources.

That gap worsened this year with the Ehrlich administration choosing to battle Maryland's budget problems by taking $500 million from the state transportation trust fund.

As a result, the state transportation agency had to rebalance its budgets through the 2008 fiscal year - primarily via cuts and $300 million worth of delays in transportation projects. The impact of these cuts and delays will go far beyond the relatively small service reductions announced last week for the Baltimore area. Witness the rising tensions between Governor Ehrlich and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan over how to find funds to dent that area's already desperate transportation problems.

With the Ehrlich administration diverting transportation money to the general fund - while aiming to build such big-ticket road projects as the Intercounty Connector - Marylanders face the prospect of a cycle of growing transportation problems, transit cuts, and then even more problems. Raising the gas tax would go a long way toward heading off that potentially deadly spiral.

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