Boosting Maryland's Gas Tax is a Must

"These bridges and roads are not like trees. They don't grow stronger with age."  -- Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley

That's the very apt analogy made by the governor during a recent radio interview, explaining why he wants to raise the state's gas tax, which has been stagnent at 23.5 cents per gallon for nearly 19 years. Earlier this week Gov. O'Malley took a bold step in launching his effort to win legislative approval of his proposal to boost Maryland's 6% sales tax on every gallon of gas as a way to raise billions of dollars for road and transit projects.

As proposed, Gov. O'Mally's gas tax increase would be phased in annually over three years in increments of 2%, meaning that a gallon of gas that now costs $3.48 at the pump would increase 6 cents. The sales tax would rise or fall with gas prices, so if pump prices stay where they are right now the governor's proposal would add about 21 cents a gallon by 2015.

According to a story in the Washington Post, the governor explained his proposal by asking Marylanders to consider "what all of us are paying right now in terms of idling in traffic congestion, time away from family, time away from work," adding that "all of that is more expensive in the longer team than making this investment in transportation."

Not surprisingly, raising the gas tax is pretty unpopular. A new Washington Post opinion poll found that fewer than half support a 5 cent increase in Maryland's 23.5 cent per gallon tax. Opposition swells above 70% when people for an increase of 10 cents per gallon. Gov. O'Malley's plan goes even further than the 15 cent hike recommended by his own blue ribbon commission last year. It's no wonder then that he's likely to run into a political buzz-saw, not just from his Republican opponents in the State House but also from lawmakers in his own party.

But the governor has little choice. Currently, the state collects $738 million annually from its gas tax. But the infrastructure needs of the state exceed a billion dollars every year -- leaving Maryland in a huge hole when it comes to paying for basic repairs to the state's over-used highways and mass transit systems, let alone upgrading, improving and expanding the transportation network to meet the region's capacity challenges. You have to pay to play -- or in this case to drive or ride. So, Gov. O'Malley's gas tax increase would raise nearly $625 million more funding for infrastructure each year.

Quick pause to consider the common misconceptions about the gas tax. (See my blog for debunking):

  • Myth #1: Americans already pay too much in gas taxes.
  • Myth #2: Gas taxes rise every year.
  • Myth #3: Gas taxes are unnecessary because the transportation system is paid for in other ways.
  • Myth #4: Transportation taxes are detrimental to American competitiveness.
  • Myth #5: Gas taxes make an already volatile gasoline market even worse.

So, Marylanders have to ask ourselves: If not now, when? If not here, where? If not this, what?

After all, states can no longer count on the federal government to pick up the transportation tab. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which funds much of the nation's transportation needs, is running on fumes and is about to go empty. The Congressional Budget Office expects the Fund to be face insolvency some time in fiscal year 2013 (which begins on Oct. 1, 2012). "Today, America is one big pothole, and we have lots of bridges that are cumbling," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday. "The Highway Trust Fund was a great source to build our interstate highway system, but it has been diminished."

Here's the reason: First, fixing and building roads and rails isn't cheap, and construction costs are soaring since so much of our infrastructure is old and in such bad shape. Also, the federal gas tax hasn't budged since 1993 from its current rate of 18.4 cents per gallon. Finally, cars and trucks are becoming more fuel-efficient. That adds up to a perfect storm to explain why the government is not collecting enough money at the gas pump to restore America's rapidly deteriorating 20th century transportation network and to create a new and improved system for the 21st century. 

Bottom-line: Lots of other states find themselves facing an infrastructure budget crunch. Most are struggling to cover their costs with woefully inadequate gas taxes and associated user fees. Some are taking necessary steps to tackle their transportation problems head on.

As today's Washington Post editorial noted, transportation is at the top of the list of long neglected needs, making it the bane of Washington-area commuters. "At this point, Marylanders (like Virginians, who last saw a gas tax increase when Ronald Reagan was president) are not paying for the roads they're using."

For this reason, whether or not all of us realize it, we're fortunate here in Maryland that our governor is spending his current political capital to invest in our transportation future. Quite literally, for us it's a gas tax increase or bust.