Kent Ward rushed to the Gaithersburg office of the state Motor Vehicle Administration yesterday afternoon to register a Ford Explorer he recently purchased in North Carolina. Ward knew that if he waited until today, the $108 biannual registration fee for an SUV would jump to $180.
"I came here to save $70," said Ward, who lives in Bethesda.
Starting today, Maryland's 4.4 million vehicle owners will face higher fees to register or reregister their cars, trucks and SUVs.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) pushed for the increase in the spring to raise additional money to pay for billions of dollars in highway and mass transportation projects without having to raise the tax on gas or other goods.
Some Ehrlich critics, however, have dubbed the increase a car tax that they say will come back to haunt the governor when he runs for reelection in 2006.
"People are going to be mad and say, 'Who do we blame?' " said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), a vocal critic of the governor. "There is only one person to blame: Bob Ehrlich."
The higher registration fees, the first increase since 1987, are among nearly 125 laws approved by the General Assembly this year that go into effect today. Another batch of laws will go on the books Oct. 1.
Many of the measures that start today deal with local issues affecting only one county, but several have statewide implications, including the establishment of a program to divert more nonviolent offenders to treatment programs instead of to jail and the creation of a state Department of Disabilities.
In the District, motorists will be required to use hands-free devices while talking on a cell phone starting today, and Virginia is ushering in a series of drunken-driving measures that will make the state's laws among the toughest in the nation.
But at the MVA offices yesterday, it was the prospect of higher registration fees that prompted motorists to act.
The owners of SUVs and trucks will have pay $180 every two years, and drivers registering cars will pay $128 every two years, up from $81.
The higher fees will generate an additional $150 million a year for the state's transportation trust fund, which pays for highway and mass transportation projects.
Secretary of Transportation Robert L. Flanagan said the additional revenue will help fund $11 billion in projects during the next six years, including the proposed intercounty connector that would link Interstates 270 and 95.
"We needed to increase funding to address a huge backlog in our transportation system, including important highway projects that involve safety as well as congestion," Flanagan said. He added that he believes most people will accept the increase when they understand how the money is being spent.
Yesterday, many motorists at the MVA office said the higher fees are a cost of driving in Maryland. But for some, the news of the looming increase only added to their frustration over the long lines at the MVA.
"After just spending 21/2 hours in there, [I think] the MVA in this state is the worst in the country. How they can be charging more when services are horrible is beyond me," said Chuck Shorter, 50, of Rockville.
Democrats are hoping to capitalize on that sentiment, even though many of them voted for the legislation proposed by Ehrlich. The higher fees won bipartisan approval from the General Assembly after Ehrlich grounded an effort to raise the state's gas tax, which is 23.5 cents a gallon.
A 10-cent increase in the gas tax, which has not been raised since 1992, would have generated about $318 million annually. Supporters of such an increase said it would be more fair because people would pay based on how much they drive. They pointed out that it would also catch out-of-state motorists who buy gas in Maryland.
But Flanagan said the governor was not about to call for a gas tax when the price of gas is near record levels. "Gas prices are way too high and eating people alive," Flanagan said.
Flanagan also said that the new registration fees are comparable to what motorists in other states pay. District motorists pay $72 annually to register a car, and Virginia car owners pay $29.50 annually plus a car tax, according to the MVA.