No tax rise seen to avert MTA cuts

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

November 30, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larrycarson@baltimoresun.com

A gallon of gas costs less than $2, and Maryland's gasoline tax hasn't been raised for 15 years.

But don't look for Howard County's State House delegation to lead the charge in Annapolis for a tax increase to prevent big cuts to commuter transit and highway projects.

If the proposed Mass Transit Administration cuts become reality Jan. 12, scores of people who responded to $4-a-gallon gas by heeding the government's call to use mass transit will feel as though they've been thrown under a bus - if there is one.

To counterbalance declining revenue, state officials are considering cutting $1 billion from transportation projects now and maybe twice that much later. The reductions would eliminate commuter bus service from Columbia to Baltimore, including one route serving U.S. 1, and result in fewer trips to Silver Spring and Washington, as well as cuts to MARC train service. Only the route from Long Gate Shopping Center to Baltimore would remain.

At an MTA hearing in Columbia this month, riders said they are willing to pay higher fares to cover the cost of the bus service, and they urged consideration of new ways to finance mass transit. In a Nov. 24 letter to Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, the county's Democratic elected officials urged consideration of fare increases to limit the losses.

Republican Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller and state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman argue that taxing rural motorists' gasoline purchases to support mass transit isn't fair. Bates said mass transit should pay for itself, and Kittleman said he has no objection to higher bus fares.

Miller noted that the state's cuts to highway projects in the western county drew no delegation letters of protest, though the widening of Route 32 has been a priority there. That project is now delayed, he and Bates said.

"I think gas tax revenues should be used for roads," Kittleman said. Miller agreed.

"I think that mass transit has bled off desperately needed road money," he said.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat, disagrees.

"Those of us who rarely use public transit, like me, have some obligation to subsidize people who are getting off the roads," she said. "I'm very comfortable subsidizing public transportation."

She is not advocating raising the gas tax, though.

For now, the gasoline tax and vehicle titling fees are the main sources of transportation funding in Maryland, and revenues from both are declining rapidly amid the economic slump.

State legislators didn't raise the tax in last year's special session to address a revenue shortfall, deciding to divert half the higher revenue from a sales tax increase to transportation instead. Now gas prices are down, but the politicians say they are finished raising taxes.

"I haven't found anybody who has any will to raise taxes," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat who serves on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

A clutch of Howard elected officials attended the MTA hearing in Owen Brown to strongly oppose plans to cut bus service.

"What gets me is that it flies in the face of what the state, county and our country is trying to do," Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat and Senate majority leader, told the state hearing examiner. "You'll lose the trust of the people [who ride transit]."

But only County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty raised the issue of the gas tax at the hearing. Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who did not attend, later agreed it should be looked at. Bobo said she would like to see consideration of a suspension of work on the multibillion-dollar Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery County to save money.

"I am a lonely voice, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be speaking about it" Sigaty said the day after the hearing.

Sigaty said public transit is the best hope for controlling air pollution, traffic congestion and saving energy. Low gas prices and reductions in bus service reinforce the use of private vehicles and all the ills the nation is trying to fix, she said.

Taxes can seem like a burden, but sometimes they can offer a benefit, too, she said, noting that high gasoline taxes in Europe have kept traffic under control and allowed people to get around on first-class mass transit systems.

"Taxes are quite expensive. I get it, but that's always looked on as a bad thing. I think if it would move us to a priority that we agree is something essential," maybe it's not so bad, she said.

"It really comes to what are our priorities," she said.

Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat who as county executive in 2003 raised the county's income tax rate 30 percent, also said he is not considering a change in the gas tax.

"People are fed up with taxes right now," Robey said.

Dels. James E. Malone Jr. and Steven J. DeBoy, both Democrats who represent parts of Elkridge, are adamantly opposed to raising the gas tax.

"My constituents don't want it, and I don't want it," Malone declared. "The average person in my district just can't afford a lot."

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