Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari probably couldn't have picked a better setting to pitch an increase in the gas tax to state lawmakers.
As a luxury bus taking 37 newly elected members of the General Assembly on a tour of the state lurched onto the clogged Capital Beltway during yesterday morning's rush hour, Porcari launched into his appeal.
"We have gone 10 years without a gas tax increase," Porcari said. "If we're going to have the transportation system we want and come to grips with all this congestion, we're going to need to raise revenues."
To many of the legislators peering out tinted glass windows at the sea of cars around them, a higher gas tax was an idea that had found its moment. And among Montgomery County officials especially, the concept of paying at the pump is emerging as a key objective for the coming legislative session.
Solving the region's traffic woes "won't come cheap," County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said shortly after being elected to a third term on a wave of anti-gridlock sentiment. "But I can assure you, the cost of inaction is far greater." Duncan is asking Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to consider raising Maryland's gas tax, currently 23 1/4 cents a gallon, to 33 1/4 cents, making it the highest state levy on gas in the nation.
His proposal was echoed by a special state commission appointed by outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to examine Maryland's fiscal structure. The panel reported yesterday that it, too, thinks Ehrlich and state lawmakers should agree on a 10-cent increase. The commission offered several other ideas for raising money, including an increase in the income tax rate for Maryland's wealthiest residents and a ratcheting up of various taxes on corporations, consumer goods, property, tobacco and alcohol.
A gas tax increase alone would raise an extra $200 million for state transportation projects, and Duncan hopes the proceeds would help pay for at least part of his $10 billion transportation initiative. The plan includes construction of the long-debated intercounty connector to link Interstates 270 and 95. He also has asked the legislature for permission to tack a $25 fee onto the cost of registering a vehicle in Montgomery.
Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said the governor-elect has not taken a position on a gas tax increase.
"He has ruled out income tax and sales increases, but we really have not addressed the needs of the transportation trust fund yet," Schurick said. "We all know the [transportation] trust fund is broke. . . . If we want to build roads in Maryland, we need to figure out a way of paying for them."
As became clear last weekend, when Republican lawmakers met in caucus, the minority party is not entirely sold on the concept. Sen.-elect E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's) said that during all their talks on the budget, the idea of a gas tax never came up.
"From where I stand, it's not on the table," he said. "We'll listen to all sides, but our philosophy generally is that we can downsize government so tax increases aren't necessary."
But Montgomery County lawmakers will enter the coming legislative session with substantial new clout, including several members who will hold leadership positions. And that, they said, could lift the gas tax to near the top of the legislature's agenda. House Ways and Means Chairman Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery) said yesterday that the gas tax is "probably the most palatable tax that my constituents can deal with."
"Ten cents won't do everything," Hixson said, "but it will repair roads and bridges and keep the projects moving."
The newly selected House majority leader, Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), agreed that the idea has some merit, though he said he wants to make certain it can be tied directly to key construction projects -- including the intercounty connector.
"The concern on the part of people in Montgomery County is, we don't want to pay these fees and not see the roads get built," Barve said. "The linkage is critical."
Among freshman lawmakers riding the bus in Montgomery yesterday, the crawl through traffic on the Beltway, followed by a long haul down a packed Randolph Road, which carries much of the county's east-west traffic, seemed a tailor-made argument for building the connector.
Del.-elect Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), an opponent of the connector, even joked that Duncan may have secretly planned for all the traffic yesterday.
"Unfortunately," Duncan aide David Weaver replied, "you don't have to stage things for there to be congestion out here."