Paying at the pump

March 12, 2007

The last time the General Assembly raised Maryland's gas tax - from 18.5 cents to 23.5 cents per gallon - William Donald Schaefer was governor and regular unleaded sold for $1.07 a gallon. By that standard, raising the tax by another 12 cents, as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has recently proposed, isn't onerous, it's overdue. The gas tax goes directly into roads and transit, but unlike other taxes, it doesn't rise with inflation. If Maryland wants to avoid traffic gridlock, action needs to be taken soon.

Small wonder that business leaders have rushed to support the proposal. If the Baltimore area grows in population by 210,000 over the next decade, as experts have estimated, the effects on traffic are likely to be significant. Nationwide surveys have found that Maryland residents have among the worst commutes in the nation, at an average of 30.8 minutes each way. That's second in length only to New Yorkers.

Mr. Miller's plan would not only raise the gas tax to 35.5 cents per gallon, it would also index it to inflation up to 39.5 cents. The proposal is unlikely to pass this year - Gov. Martin O'Malley wants it rolled into a broader budget-deficit solution next year - but the need to address Maryland's worsening traffic gridlock is clear.

How bad does the future look? The Maryland Department of Transportation is saddled with about $40 billion in unfunded transportation projects. That includes the much-anticipated Red Line - the east-west transit line from Woodlawn to Fells Point and Canton - plus the myriad upgrades needed to accommodate the thousands of military-related jobs coming to the state.

Mr. Miller's proposal would likely raise about $400 million per year - enough to finance two-thirds, and possibly more, of that $40 billion in unmet transportation needs.

The beauty of the gas tax as public policy is that it goes chiefly into tangible projects and not into the general fund, where it might be spent on anything. Lawmakers - and voters - aren't buying a pig in a poke; the O'Malley administration can develop a list of what will be built. Motorists may complain about the tax (although traditionally they don't), but legislators can point to exactly where the money goes.

Oil prices have become so volatile that an extra 12 cents a gallon may be the difference between filling up a car on Tuesday or next week. Yet rising petroleum prices have caused the cost of asphalt and other building materials needed for road and transit projects to spike, too. The State Highway Administration reports that the last major tax increase - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s doubling of the car registration fee in 2004 - has essentially been overtaken by a 31 percent increase in highway construction costs.

Tying the gas tax to inflation would be a welcome development. The State House would have fewer political showdowns over what should be regarded as an incremental change in a fee.

Nobody likes paying higher prices at the pump (although knowing your extra pennies go to improving your quality of life instead of to overseas producers should provide some consolation). Higher fuel taxes can also encourage conservation, but that's a secondary benefit at best. The bottom line is that maintaining the gas tax at 1992 prices doesn't save much money - or commuting headaches - if it means motorists are left idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

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