A Montgomery County lawmaker who wants to pump more money into transportation projects has suggested a tax on those who buy gas in the county could be one possible option.
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda has proposed the county seek authority from the state to establish either a local gas or sales tax to fund transportation.
“I just want a local funding mechanism,” Berliner said. “Pennies don’t fall from heaven, they have to be found and a funding source has to be created.”
Projects like the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway and bus rapid transit are among the county’s top transportation priorities, but their hefty price tags have lawmakers brainstorming ways to foot the bills.
County leaders supported a proposal to add a 6 percent sales tax on top of the 23.5-cent gas tax this year. The increase would have replenished the Transportation Trust Fund. The proposal failed.
Several county transportation projects need funding to become a reality.
The Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile light rail line that would connect Bethesda with New Carrollton, would cost $1.92 billion. The 15-mile CCT would connect the Shady Grove Metro station in Rockville to Comsat in Clarksburg with a BRT line, at a cost of $491 million. And a recommended 160-mile network of BRT would cost $1.8 billion.
If the state cannot or will not find money for transportation, it should allow Montgomery to come up with funding on its own, Berliner said.
“If you can’t help us, don’t hurt us,” he said.
Asking for a local tax authority is playing into the state’s hand, said Joan Fidler of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League.
“It is a clear ‘set up’ as it could absolve the state from any or all responsibility to pay for transportation/transit projects specific to Montgomery County,” Fidler said in an email.
The state currently returns to the county only 18 cents for every $1 in taxes the county sends to Annapolis, she said.
“Why would we exacerbate an already unfair situation for Montgomery County by offering to further tax our residents for a funding responsibility of the state?” she asked.
State Sen. David Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market, who sits on the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he opposed increasing the statewide gas tax because it asks rural residents who have no choice but to drive cars to subsidize transit projects in urban counties.
Although a Montgomery gas tax likely would benefit retailers in his district, which spans portions of Frederick and Carroll counties, Brinkley cautioned against another tax aimed at changing behavior. Projects like bus rapid transit and the CCT are designed to encourage drivers to take mass transit rather than drive.
Behavior taxes, like those on alcohol and cigarettes, do not overwhelmingly change habits, but rather just force people to buy products elsewhere, Brinkley said. A gas tax likely would have the same effect, he said.
Increasing the cost of gas in Montgomery could push drivers to stations across county borders where they could buy gas for less.