Montgomery County’s many transportation needs can be solved with one thing: dollars. The Purple Line will cost $1.92 billion. The Corridor Cities Transitway will cost $491 million. A network of bus rapid transit routes will cost $1.8 billion. Add to that pothole repairs, bus replacements, street resurfacing and dozens of other items.
Neither the federal nor the state government is racing to fund the large projects, and county dollars are stretched to cover the little ones. So Council President Roger Berliner suggests the state legislature grant the county the power to charge its own gas tax on top of the state’s.
Others, including County Executive Isiah Leggett, have proposed increases to the state’s 23-cents-per-gallon gas tax to pay for transportation projects across the state. Even with the support from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, gas tax increases have stalled in the legislature. Out-of-county lawmakers balk at forcing motorists in rural areas to pay a tax increase that will largely go to big metro-area projects. Anti-tax legislators might find a Montgomery County-only tax more palatable: Give the suburban liberals enough rope to hang themselves, could be the thinking.
But several questions arise from the proposal. First, is it enough? The Comptroller’s Office, reporting on fiscal 2011, said the state sold something on the order of 3.1 billion gallons of motor fuel. Assuming a fifth of that was sold in Montgomery County, each penny of a local gas tax would raise about $6 million. Assume a tax of 7 cents a gallon, and the revenue would be about $42 million, which could cover $380 million in bonds, according to county estimates. With $4.2 billion worth of projects lined up, those millions won’t go very far, even if only to pay the local portions of their budgets.
Second, does the county really need it? Montgomery County has more ways to collect taxes than most Maryland jurisdictions, with the property tax, the energy tax, the cell phone tax, the hotel/motel tax, the fire tax, the bag tax. You name it; if it exists inside this county, it has a tax. And those taxes add up to something like $3 billion for the county treasury. One wonders why the County Council doesn’t save itself the political fight and fence off $42 million from its existing revenue sources.
Third, what kind of political fight lies ahead if Berliner moves forward with this plan? A great many people in Montgomery County live here because they appreciate the government services, including schools and parks, offered. Heck, the prime reason the roads are so congested are because people like living here, taxes and all. But it’s a fair question to ask just how much the Montgomery County voter is willing to accept. To tack a local tax on top of an existing state tax to pay for a service that is rightly the state’s concern could be more than many can take.
Plus, people can vote with their feet — and their GPS’s — and take their automobiles across the county line to find cheaper gasoline. It’s already happening. Council members should spend a Saturday afternoon at the Frederick Costco and count the number of kids wearing the T shirts of Montgomery County schools. Families aren’t just buying gas on their forays out of county; they’re pumping sales tax revenue into the budgets of our northern neighbors.
So yes, Berliner deserves credit for making the proposal, but there’s ample reason to think it might not solve the problems he envisions. And if nothing else, the proposal might give Robin Ficker another reason to have a tax-limiting question on the 2014 ballot.