Passage of Va. transportation plan likely to buoy efforts in Maryland


(File photo) Traffic on the 495 Beltway in Maryland. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
February 25, 2013

Maryland lawmakers might finally have found the inspiration they need to get moving on a transportation funding package — in Virginia.

The passage last weekend of a plan to infuse about $880 million a year into Virginia’s roads and mass transit is likely to energize the debate across the Potomac, Maryland leaders said, citing the competition for jobs and the shared traffic congestion.

“Virginia taking action creates even more of an urgency for Maryland,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). “The race now becomes for the best transportation system, in terms of attracting businesses and generating economic activity. . . . I would rate it highly probable that something gets accomplished.”

Busch offered few details but said he would like to boost transportation funding by more than $600 million a year in a state that hasn’t raised its gas tax since 1992.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has already put forward an ambitious proposal that would impose a 3 percent sales tax on gasoline. It would also give taxing power to regional authorities to raise money for major rail lines and allow counties to tack up to 5 cents onto the state’s 23.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax for local projects.

But Miller has said his plan isn’t going anywhere without more vocal backing from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and buy-in from his counterparts in the House of Delegates. Last week, Miller branded Republicans in that chamber who oppose his ideas as “Neanderthals.”

Both Maryland and Virginia have transportation funds that are essentially running out of money to address some of the worst traffic woes in the nation. In Virginia, a Republican governor and divided legislature compromised on a complex package on the final day of the legislation session.

So far in Maryland’s 90-day session — which reached its midpoint Friday — there has been far more talk than action in a state dominated by Democrats.

O’Malley decried “the worst traffic congestion in the country” in his State of the State address. A plan he offered last year went nowhere, and aides say O’Malley is now working behind the scenes in hopes of forging a plan that can pass in both chambers.

“The movement in Virginia may make things a little easier,” said O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory.

In search of a consensus, the governor met last week with leaders of the House, where a transportation-related tax increase remains the harder sell. That’s in part because rural Democrats question what they would get in exchange for a very tough vote, cast at a time when gas prices are rising.

“All the rural areas have come to believe our gas tax goes toward building light rail, that we don’t benefit from it,” said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s). “That’s the perception.”

But Bohanan said the news out of Virginia “definitely changes the equation in Maryland.”

“I’m going to take a good hard look at it, because our state needs it, and our region needs it as badly as anywhere else,” he said.

Projections by state fiscal analysts are unquestionably dire.

Maryland has no money budgeted for new highway construction after 2017. And no funding has been identified to pay the state’s share of long-planned rail projects.

Without new funding this legislative session, the state Department of Transportation plans to halt design work on the Purple Line, which would connect Bethesda and New Carrollton, as well as on a dedicated express bus route in the Interstate 270 corridor.

The leaders of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions have sought for months to set off alarm bells in Annapolis. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appeared together at a Senate hearing last week and urged lawmakers to pass Miller’s plan or something like it.

But Busch said “there’s not a lot of appetite in the House” for the part of Miller’s proposal that would give taxing power to regional authorities and that leaders in his chambers are mulling other options.

Last year, O’Malley proposed imposing a 6 percent sales tax on gas, a move projected to raise more than $600 million a year. More recently, O’Malley has floated the idea of raising the state’s general sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent and earmarking the additional revenue for transportation projects. But Miller has been cool to that idea.

The plan passed in Virginia will replace the commonwealth’s 17.5-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline — which had not been changed since 1987 — with a new 3.5 percent wholesale tax on motor fuels. The deal also calls for boosting the sales tax on nonfood merchandise from 5 percent to 5.3 percent and devoting a larger slice of existing revenue to transportation instead of schools, public safety and other services.

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