Maryland House votes to boost transportation funds with gas tax increase


Members of the Maryland House of Delegates in session earlier this month. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
March 22, 2013

The Maryland House of Delegates voted 76 to 63 Friday to raise taxes on gas to help replenish a state transportation fund that is rapidly running out of money for highway construction and long-planned mass-transit projects.

Under the bill, a priority for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), motorists could expect to pay roughly an additional 13 to 20 cents a gallon of gas by mid-2016, according to legislative analysts. The higher gas taxes would be phased in over several years, with the first increase of about 4 cents a gallon coming in July.

Transportation officials say the bill would yield $4.4 billion for roads and mass-transit projects over the next six years, including additional borrowing. It now moves to the Senate, where leaders have pledged to take action in the final two weeks of Maryland’s 90-day legislative session.

During debate in the House, supporters said the measure was necessary to address some of the nation’s worst traffic ­congestion, a need that has taken on greater urgency after last month’s passage of a transportation bill in Virginia, a state that is led by a Republican governor and that competes with Maryland for jobs.

Based on current projections, state analysts say that after 2017, Maryland will have only enough revenue for maintenance of its existing transportation network and not for new highway construction or planned mass-transit projects, including the Purple Line rail link in the Washington area and the Corridor Cities Transitway rapid bus line along Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.

There is also a backlog of other unfunded projects sought by local leaders, such as improvements to Route 210 that Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has said have become more urgent with a casino expected to open in his county in 2016.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) called the increase in gas taxes “a reasonable price to pay to spend less time on the road.”

“There is a real cost to congestion,” Barve said. “I believe this is what we need to do to get people out of their cars and moving.”

House Republicans had sought in recent days to slow the bill’s momentum, arguing that the tax increases would take a particularly heavy toll on working-class families at a time when the economy remains fragile.

“We need to give our economy a chance to recover, and this will make it worse,” said Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel). “It is socially unjust for our government to do do this to our most vulnerable citizens.”

That view was echoed by some Democrats who opposed the bill, including Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), who called the gas tax “an egregiously regressive tax.”

For the average driver, the added cost at the pump would initially be about $19 a year, later rising to as much as $100 annually, legislative analysts say.

All 76 votes in favor of the bill Friday were cast by Democrats. Forty-one Republicans and 22 Democrats voted against the bill.

In a statement, O’Malley praised the House for passing a “balanced, fiscally responsible” bill that he said would “support 44,000 jobs over the next five years.”

“I urge the Senate to pass this plan quickly so that we can continue to help Marylanders find jobs and strengthen our middle class,” O’Malley said.

The plan adds another layer of taxes to purchases of gasoline, which are now subject to a 23.5-cent-a-gallon flat tax, a levy unchanged since 1992.

Under the bill, a new sales tax of 3 percent also would be imposed. That tax would be phased in over three years, starting in July.

Another 2 percent could later be tacked onto the sales tax on gas if Congress doesn’t take action on a separate issue related to Internet sales.

Maryland and other states are lobbying the federal government to adopt a long-stalled plan that would ensure states can collect sales taxes when their residents make purchases from out-of-state Internet retailers.

If Congress acts on that by 2015, that revenue would be earmarked for transportation in Maryland. Otherwise, the additional 2 percent sales tax on gas would take effect.

Virginia has a similar provision in the transportation bill passed last month that was championed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The bill passed by the Maryland House would also auto­matically raise the 23.5-cent-a-gallon tax on gas each year based on inflation.

The measure has been supported by business and labor groups, as well as the county executives of Montgomery and Prince George’s

Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery) said he expects the Senate to make some changes to the transportation bill, but he said the magnitude of the money raised should not change significantly. He added that he is confident the House and Senate can work out any differences before the Gen­eral Assembly is scheduled to adjourn April 8.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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