MARYLAND HASN’T been quite the laggard that Virginia has been in terms of raising enough money for the state’s roads, rails, bridges and tunnels, but it’s close. Virginia last raised its per gallon gas tax — the major source of transportation funding — in 1986. Maryland last raised its own levy, albeit to a higher level, in 1992. In both cases the outlook is bleak.
At current trends, Virginia will run out of funds to design and build new transportation projects in 2017; Maryland’s fund will be empty a year later. And neither Richmond nor Annapolis seems to have the political spine to come to grips with what amounts to a breakdown in the government’s basic obligation to provide adequate infrastructure.
In Virginia, as we have recently written, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) seems willing only to push half-measures that will not come close to plugging what has become a $1 billion annual deficit in transportation funding. Despite his considerable popularity, and the fact that his fellow Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, he appears unwilling to challenge the GOP’s ideological distaste for raising taxes, even though the state’s transportation revenue stream has been evaporating for a quarter century.
In Maryland the funding shortfall is equally severe. But it would seem more politically susceptible to a fix given that lawmakers in control of both houses of the legislature, like Gov. Martin O’Malley, are Democrats who have not hesitated to raise taxes in the recent past. Yet somehow they quake at the prospect of raising the gas tax, despite the fact that the revenue it yields has been whittled away for a generation by inflation and more fuel-efficient cars.
Early this year Mr. O’Malley did propose raising transportation funds by gradually applying the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline. But with gas prices then approaching $4 a gallon, lawmakers blanched, and the proposal died.
Today gas prices are closer to $3.30 a gallon on average. Given that price volatility, there’s a fair chance most Marylanders would barely notice a tax increase of 15 cents per gallon — roughly the amount needed to restore the purchasing power of the state’s gas tax to 1992 levels.
In Annapolis, there seems to be a disconnect between the transportation projects many lawmakers want and their appetite for fighting for the funds to bring those projects to fruition. Suburban legislators from the Baltimore and Washington areas, who together constitute a majority of the General Assembly, give lip service to the Red Line in Baltimore; the Purple Line connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the Corridor Cities Transitway, which would link Montgomery County’s biotech belt with Metrorail; and various other highway and road projects. But too few of them say forthrightly that paying for those initiatives means raising revenue through taxes.
If the state is to provide the infrastructure it needs to prosper and grow, Mr. O’Malley needs to take the lead. So far he has not divulged his priorities in the General Assembly session starting in January. Now is the time.