Maryland’s powerful Senate president sought Tuesday to jump-start a stalled debate over transportation funding, offering a plan to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and urging the governor to work harder on an issue “crying out to be addressed.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) also floated the idea of leasing the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector (ICC) to a private operator as he outlined an approach to raising new revenue to help alleviate traffic congestion and covering the state’s share of long-planned rail projects.
“This needs to be an initiative by the governor,” Miller said. “It doesn’t poll well, but that’s what leadership is all about.”
Under Miller’s proposal, the state would impose a new 3 percent sales tax on gasoline that would be used for new roads and bridges. The statewide levy would come on top of the 23.5-cent-per-gallon tax that motorists already pay at the pump. It would generate more than $300 million a year in new revenue, analysts say.
In addition, the state would create one or more regional authorities with the power to raise property taxes to help pay for the Purple Line in the Washington region and the Red Line in Baltimore. Neither light-rail project is expected to move forward without major federal funding as well.
Miller said his ideas, which he plans to submit as legislation next week, are intended to spark conversation about an issue that has received limited attention — from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and others — in the annual legislative session now in its third week.
Miller acknowledged that not everything he is suggesting is likely to win approval, including a possible long-term lease of the ICC to a private operator to generate cash for other Maryland transportation projects.
“What I hope is the governor is going to get involved sooner rather than later,” Miller said. “This is something that should have been worked on all summer. The votes should have been lined up.”
In an interview Tuesday night, O’Malley said he has had several conversations with Miller about how to move forward on an issue that has long been a priority for him.
“I have been working with [Miller] and meeting with him as his ideas evolve, and I look forward to the final product,” O’Malley said. “We have the worst congestion in the United States, and we need to do more to attack the problem.”
Last year, O’Malley offered a major transportation initiative that gained no traction in either the Senate or the House, despite heavy lobbying of both chambers, he said. “Many people choose to forget that,” the governor said.
O’Malley did not include a transportation proposal in a package of legislative priorities released last week, but he said Tuesday that he has not ruled out introducing a bill.
Legislative analysts say that after 2017, Maryland will be able to afford only maintenance on the state’s transportation infrastructure. There is no money earmarked for new highway construction or transit projects, including the Purple and Red lines.
O’Malley, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) all have talked in recent months of the need for additional transportation revenue.
But the three leaders have not been able to reach a consensus on a plan to try to sell to lawmakers, many of whom remain wary of raising taxes while the economy is still recovering. Few Republicans are expected to support such a plan, and rural Democrats remain doubtful of the benefit to their constituents.
“We’re still collecting as much data as we can over in the House to get a transportation plan that we can get the votes for,” Busch said in an interview Tuesday. “The one positive is, everyone is discussing the need.”
Busch said his chamber would look at a “menu of options” for raising additional revenue.
Maryland has not raised its gas tax, the state’s largest source of transportation funding, since 1992.
Last year, O’Malley proposed applying a 6 percent sales tax to gasoline, a move that analysts said would raise more than $600 million a year.
Miller is essentially proposing enacting half of that increase, in addition to establishing the regional taxing authorities. He acknowledged that many details remained to be worked out as to how the authorities would operate and what their boundaries would be.
Miller said he borrowed his idea of leasing the ICC to a private operator from former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels (R).
More than six years ago, private investors from Australia and Spain put up $3.8 billion to lease a 157-mile toll road in Indiana for 75 years. The investors have attempted to recoup their investment through the collection of tolls.
Virginia has also experimented with public-private partnerships involving major roadways. A private company maintains toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and, beginning next year, Interstates 95 and 395.
Both Busch and O’Malley administration officials reacted coolly to the idea of a similar arrangement with Maryland’s 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector, which links Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County.
Mark Berman contributed to this report.