THE LAWMAKERS in Annapolis shudder and Maryland taxpayers groan, but both are looking at increases in gasoline taxes and motor vehicles this year if they expect to see any new highway or mass transit projects in the next 18 months to two years. That's the stark proposition set forth by state transportation officials; new Transportation Secretary James Lighthizer will tell you "we're not crying wolf." Anyone who has heard any state or local government official this year knows that budgets everywhere are taking a beating. Transportation projects are prime targets unless motorists are willing to ante up. Given Maryland's transportation needs in the future, the choice is clear: more revenues are essential, and the proposed taxes are the way to raise the money (even if the federal gasoline tax is also increased).
A special committee appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to study transportation needs and finances has heard this word from transportation officials, who say that an existing 45-day freeze on starting new projects, which was ordered last month, would have to be extended 18 months before revenue would be available under the current 18.5-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax. That means missing two construction seasons, they note. The department seeks approval of a five-year, $1.5 billion program that would include applying the state's 5 percent sales tax to the retail price of gasoline, increases in motor vehicle fees and additional truck fees.
It is significant that the state officials are not just talking roads here; transit would be an important part of the program, they emphasize. They also point to some advantages of proceeding with the projects in a time of recession pressures. Mr. Lighthizer notes that these projects involve thousands of jobs, and this is a good time to get a good price for construction work.
Among opponents of the gasoline tax is House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. of Kent County, who has said he believes revenues that have been lagging will rebound if gasoline prices decline. That could be a whale of an "if," even is his math is good. At least some other legislators who have looked at this closely believe that new taxes on gasoline will have to be raised if the state is to proceed on any new road or mass transit projects. With the right push by the governor and leadership from responsible lawmakers in both houses, the chance to get moving on moving will not be forfeited.