Legislation that would significantly increase taxes on gas to fund additional Maryland transportation projects advanced Wednesday in the House of Delegates, setting the stage for a final vote in the chamber later this week.
As they turned back several proposed amendments, supporters argued that the measure is needed to fund new highway construction and mass transit projects at a time when Maryland’s transportation fund is close to depleted and congestion continues to worsen.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) told his colleagues that his commute from Gaithersburg to Annapolis had grown from about an hour in 1992 — the last time the legislature raised the gas tax — to sometimes twice that long now.
“All of you have commutes that have grown longer and longer and longer,” Barve said.
Opponents acknowledged Maryland has transportation needs but said the tax increases in the bill are too steep.
“We are pricing middle-class families, and certainly the working-class poor, out of our state,” said Del. Justin Ready (R-Carroll).
The bill, originally proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), is projected to yield $3.4 billion for transportation projects, including additional borrowing.
House aides suggested it could pass as early as Friday and then move to the Senate.
The bill would impose a new sales tax on gas that would gradually rise to at least 3 percent. The tax would later increase to 5 percent if Congress does not pass legislation allowing states to collect taxes on sales over the Internet — money that would also be earmarked for transportation projects in Maryland.
The bill would also gradually increase the state’s existing 23.5-cent-per-gallon flat tax on gasoline to reflect inflation.
All told, legislative analysts project the bill could increase the amount motorists pay at the pump by the equivalent of 13.8 cents per gallon by mid-2017. If the Internet tax does not materialize, the projected increase would be the equivalent of 21.2 cents per gallon.
At an afternoon news conference, House Minority Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert) vowed that Republicans would seek to fight the “complicated scheme” to stick up for “the most frequently forgotten interest group in Annapolis: Maryland’s beleaguered taxpayers.”
A few hours later, members of O’Donnell’s party had little success as they sought to amend the bill to make it less onerous.
An amendment failed 50 to 84, for example, that would have deleted the provision that automatically increases the flat tax on gas to reflect inflation.
Another Republican-backed amendment failed 56 to 78 that sought to make the transportation bill contingent on passage of separate legislation.
Under that legislation, lawmakers would create a “lock box” intended to keep state leaders from diverting money budgeted for transportation to other programs.
Supporters of the transportation bill argued that the “lock box” was unnecessary because there are other safeguards in the legislation that make it difficult to redirect transportation dollars.
Del. Herbert H. McMillan (R-Anne Arundel) argued the provisions in the main transportation bill were a far cry from a “lock box,” however, and could allow more transfers in the future.
“This isn’t a lock box,” McMillan said. “This is a wet paper bag. A hamster could bust out of this thing.”
Maryland has no money budgeted for new highway construction after 2017. And no funding has been identified to pay the state’s share of some long-planned rail projects.
Without new funding this legislative session, the state Department of Transportation has said it plans to halt design work on the Purple Line, which would connect Bethesda and New Carrollton, as well as on a dedicated express bus route in the Interstate 270 corridor.