Gov. Martin O’Malley pushes for more transportation funds in Md.

April 29, 2011

Gov. Martin O’Malley tried Friday to spark a larger discussion about Maryland’s growing transportation challenges, with an eye toward possible increases in the gas tax and other levies in the coming year.

O’Malley (D) met publicly for nearly two hours with a blue-ribbon commission that in a recent report called for raising an additional $800 million a year for road and transit projects and declared that Maryland’s system of transportation funding is “on the verge of financial collapse unless action is taken now.”

Although O’Malley stopped short Friday of endorsing tax increases, he made it clear that he agrees with the thrust of the group’s findings.

He noted that hundreds of millions in projects that have been deferred and significant cutbacks have been made to road maintenance, even as the state hopes to advance two light rail projects, including the Purple Line in the Washington region.

“The pace of our investment is not sufficient for the needs we have, . . . and we have to find a better way forward,” O’Malley said at the gathering in Columbia, which was attended by a few hundred legislators, local officials, business leaders and transportation advocates.

At the same time, O’Malley lamented a “fashionable hate for government” that he said makes it difficult for leaders across the country to invest in infrastructure projects. “That’s the wind against which we sail.”

O’Malley’s top aide said the meeting was intended to “start a wider conversation” about what measures to push this fall in a special legislative session or early next year when lawmakers return for their annual 90-day session.

“Everything’s under consideration at this point,” Matthew D. Gallagher, O’Malley’s chief of staff, told reporters after the meeting. The governor left without fielding questions from the media.

During a private meeting this year with legislative leaders, O’Malley floated the idea of addressing transportation revenue this fall, when lawmakers are planning to meet to redraw congressional district lines.

No commitments emerged from that meeting, and some legislators have since grown cooler to the idea as they have watched the price of gasoline reach $4 a gallon.

The 23.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax is the largest source of revenue in the state’s $2.1 billion transportation trust fund, a separate account from Maryland’s primary operating budget. Lawmakers last raised the gas tax in 1992, when the average price per gallon nationwide was $1.14.

The last major push to raise other revenue for transportation came in 2007, when lawmakers earmarked portions of the state’s sales and corporate taxes for road and transit projects. But that effort yielded far less than the projected $450 million a year because of the economic downturn that followed.

A February report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding contains a new “menu of revenue options,” including several possible scenarios for raising the gas tax. For example, a 15-cent-per-gallon increase, phased in over three years, would yield an average of $388 million per year.

Other possible strategies look beyond the gas tax. They include applying the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline, applying the 6 percent sales tax to auto repair services, increasing the vehicle title tax and raising fees on vehicle registrations and driver’s licenses.

The political challenge of raising additional transportation revenue was underscored Friday by a news release issued even before O’Malley’s event was over. Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex X. Mooney said it was “outrageous that Governor O’Malley would even consider new taxes to replenish the Transportation Fund which he constantly raids to pay for his out-of-control spending.”

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