Like drivers on Maryland’s congested roadways, legislators are looking for alternative routes to generate funding for transportation projects without having to raise the gasoline tax. But they are not seeing any clear paths in front of them.
A newly released study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found one such alternative –– mileage-based, user-fee initiatives –– can lead to more equitable and efficient use of roadways because they charge drivers based on actual road use rather than a gas tax that results in drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles paying less.
But such a plan is unlikely to ever get off the ground in Maryland, said John Townsend, spokesman for the AAA Mid-Atlantic.
“They’d be laughed out of the General Assembly and scorned everywhere because there’s no good way of doing it,” Townsend said of the mileage-based user fees.
Because the fees would require a GPS recorder in cars, it also would be expensive and raise privacy concerns, he said.
“It would be something that drivers and civil libertarians would hate,” Townsend said. “It’s just not a practical way of collecting (a tax).”
State Sen. James Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park said a mileage-based system could work, but he did not expect such a measure to be introduced in Annapolis. “It’s a serious new approach,” he said of mileage-based fees.
Rosapepe reintroduced this week his “End the Gridlock” constitutional amendment because the state’s transportation projects are blocked by the state legislature’s refusal to raise the money through a gas tax increase, he said. Maryland has not raised its gasoline tax of 23.5 cents per gallon since 1992.
The amendment would allow for the governor and legislature to draw up plans for transportation projects and then present the plans for approval in a referendum to the voters, Rosapepe said.
By letting voters decide on which projects are passed, they are more likely to support any tax or fee increases to support them, Rosapepe said. The state Constitution has to be amended because it currently prohibits budgetary issues from being put to referendum.
His bill died this past year after he introduced it in the August special session.
The idea of encouraging voter participation might make sense, but it would still be a tough sell, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“If you ask people in a referendum ‘Do you want to be taxed?’ the outcome is a pretty foregone conclusion,” Crenson said.
In jurisdictions where congestion is a major problem, more support exists for projects that would ease overcrowded roads and trains, but in more rural districts, residents are unlikely to support higher taxes to pay for roads and bridges in other counties, he said.
The state’s gas tax has not even kept up with inflation, let alone the demands of a growing population and aging infrastructure in need of repairs and replacement, but politicians are opposed to raising it, Crenson said.
“They’re scared,” he said. “Although it’s not an election year, no one wants their opponent to bring up their record on tax votes, and this one is especially sensitive because the price of gas has gone up so sharply in recent years.”
State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton said the gas tax is a “nonstarter” this session.
Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore would not see gas-tax dollars returned to them because the money already is earmarked for major capital projects in Baltimore and Montgomery County, he said.
Pipkin has proposed separating transit projects from road projects, both of which are now funded through the gas tax.
“Until we stop promising all these mega-mass-transit projects that lose a substantial amount of money, there’s really no reason to talk about funding increases,” Pipkin said.
Sen. Ron Young (D-Dist. 3) of Frederick plans to introduce soon a bill that would allow local governments to raise the gasoline tax by 2 cents per gallon for service stations within their boundaries to pay for transportation projects in those counties.
Because the bill would be enabling legislation, only counties that chose to enact a county gas tax would do it. “It addresses the people’s needs in that jurisdiction and the (traffic) gridlock,” he said.
But county officials are not eager to enact gas taxes, either, one Frederick County commissioner said.
“I understand his perspective and what he is trying to do,” Frederick County Board of Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) said of his father’s bill. “But it would be hard for any elected official to increase the gas tax, especially when 40 percent of the work force in Frederick County is getting jobs out of the county.”
Staff writer Sherry Greenfield contributed to this report.