Overall, the 300 people from the two states and the District who participated in focus groups convened by the planning board said they wanted better transportation and less congestion but showed little will to pay more for them.
The report offers a timely perspective as state and federal officials grapple with massive funding shortfalls, in large part because greater fuel efficiencies have reduced revenue from the gas tax that paid for the interstate highway system and hundreds of thousands of miles of roadway and transit lines.
With Maryland’s transportation trust fund headed for bankruptcy within five years, the current legislative session will consider whether to raise the state’s 23-cent-per-gallon gas tax, impose a sales tax on gasoline or do nothing. Last year, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) unsuccessfully sought a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline. The legislative package he presented to the legislature Friday did not include a renewal of that effort.
In Virginia, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has proposed replacing the 17.5-cent-per-gallon tax with a sales tax increase. State officials said the purchasing power of the gasoline tax has declined by more than half since it was last increased in 1986.
As they focus on replacing highway and transit systems at the end of their life spans, regional officials also are mindful of forecasts that by 2040, traffic will increase by 25 percent while highway capacity is likely to increase by just 7 percent.
Every state’s transportation crisis is compounded by the prospect of dwindling funding from the federal government, which has poured billions of dollars from the general fund into transportation to bolster the faltering gas-tax-funded Highway Trust Fund.
“The debate in America, when it comes to infrastructure, is how do we pay for it?” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said this month at a transportation conference. “We need to be sure we don’t become a second-class country when it comes to infrastructure.”
With leaders in the new Congress saying they plan to address that before the current two-year transportation bill expires next year, they have several options.
The federal Highway Trust Fund was established in 1956 as a funding source paid for by the people who used the transportation system and one that was protected from poaching by congressional or administration forces who might want to divert it to other purposes.