Ehrlich's road(s) map

December 04, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. has reached a fork in the road, and which way he turns could mean the difference between a politically bumpy ride and a traffic-clogged one.

The issue is transportation and how to pay for new roads and mass transit in Maryland, where there hasn't been an increase in motor fuel taxes in a decade. Mr. Ehrlich is loath to raise them -- and other car-related fees. It isn't a politically popular thing to do these days. (See: Schwarzenegger, Arnold, and California's taxpayer revolt.)

Last week, the task force headed by former Maryland Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann concluded its study of the issue without reaching any consensus. Here are the options, the 29 appointees essentially told the governor, you make the hard choices. The most palatable ideas left on the table are a per-gallon tax increase of 5 or 10 cents (on top of the current 23.5) and a raise in the biennial vehicle registration fee by up to $120 (it's now $81 for most cars). The other choices, such as applying the state's 5 percent sales tax to the gas pump, seem unlikely to advance.

Some of the more partisan Republican voices in Annapolis are telling the governor to do none of the above. Better, they say, not to raise taxes of any kind. The governor's top transportation priority, the $1.7 billion Intercounty Connector to ease Montgomery County's notorious gridlock, might be built without new revenues. The rest of the state can dodge potholes or watch bridges crumble for all they care. They'd rather wait and see if the Democrats try to raise taxes without them, and then point fingers.

That might be the expedient thing to do, but it wouldn't be the best thing for Maryland, and Mr. Ehrlich knows that. Without new revenues for roads and mass transit, the state's recovering economy gets flattened like so much interstate highway. That's why business groups such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce support raising gas taxes and motor vehicle charges. And Maryland Republicans have traditionally supported them, too.

If the governor is looking for political cover, here it is: This is Parris N. Glendening's fault. In the 1980s and early '90s, the state raised gas taxes four times and billions were spent, chiefly for highway improvements -- things Marylanders today couldn't live without, such as Interstate 97 in Anne Arundel County or the Route 50 bridges across the Eastern Shore or Western Maryland's Interstate 68. But when Mr. Glendening took office in 1995, he hit the brakes. He didn't want to spend the political capital on a gas tax increase. Now there's more than $10 billion worth of projects stacked up and little chance they'll go anywhere -- not without new revenues.

A compromise is possible. Mr. Ehrlich could raise the gas tax a nickel and registration costs by $30 a year. That would translate into $4.7 billion for highways and transit over the next six years -- allowing the state to meet about two-thirds of its total transportation priorities. Such an increase would be nearly imperceptible at the pump -- but obvious on the road. It might not win over the rural Republicans in the legislature (or provide fodder for a campaign slogan), but it wouldn't spawn a tax revolt, either.

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