Despite forceful pleas by local jurisdictions in behalf of Gov. Harry Hughes' plan to raise the gasoline tax four cents a gallon, a counter plan to limit the increase to two cents is gaining favor in the legislature here.
After a meeting with key legislators this afternoon, the governor said he was willing to accept less of an increase this year, so long as the overall tax package produces the $559 million in revenue he seeks over the next five years to repair deteriorating roads and bridges, and to finance new highway projects to attract new development.for road projects.
The alternative plans reflect differing priorities of county and municipal councils and state legislators on how much new tax money is needed and how it should be spent.
At a hearing here this week, the original Hughes proposal was backed by such diverse areas as Baltimore city, with its aging infrastructure, and booming Montgomery county, where the road construction cannot keep pace with the development.
But despite the backing from the locals, a compromise appears to be gaining support from delegates and senators, who concede that the election-year political reality has taken precedence over revenue estimates.
A two-cent increase already has been approved by a joint House and Senate task force..
"Nothing so enthuses the locals as to have us take the burden of passing a new tax," said Del. Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's).
Devlin said that he now counts at least 10 of the 24 members of that committee "irreconcilably opposed to any tax increase" this year.
The difference between a tax increase of two cents and four cents means millions of dollars of revenue, which in turn means that dozens of projects across the state would have to be either delayed, scaled back, funded with local money, or cancelled.
For example, in the 1983 fiscal year that begins in October, the Department of Transportation estimates that Hughes' plan will raise $92 million, with $25 million of that going directly to Baltimore and the 23 counties. The legislators' plan would raise just $41 million for the same year, with only $11 million allotted for the localities.
One reason the locals favor the higher gasoline tax is that the only local alternative levy is the universally unpopular property tax. Said Jon C. Burrell, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League, it's unfair to ask local jurisdictions to raise property taxes to make up the shortfall, since highway users, not homeowners, should carry the burden for fixing roads.
Partly to compensate for the revenue lost by the lesser tax, and partly to placate some delegates' concerns about the transportation department's priorities, the legislative tax plan earmarks all of its new money for the first two years of the tax to fixing roads and bridges, instead of building any new projects.
But that provision is strongly opposed in Montgomery County, where the biggest transportation crisis is not faulty roads, but development rapidly outpacing the county's ability to build roads and highways. Mobil Oil Corp. said it recently canceled plans to build a $360-million facility, which would have provided 10,000 new jobs, in the Shady Grove area, because the county could not build a highway link between I-270 and the planned Metro station.