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Regional authority idea raises some concerns

by Daniel Leaderman

Staff Writer

The president of the Maryland Senate is expected to introduce a plan this week to address the state’s urgent transportation funding needs, one that has drawn praise from Montgomery County leaders but is likely to prompt serious debate about how to pay for transit projects.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach is proposing both a 3-percent sales tax on the wholesale cost of gasoline, which he said could raise an additional $300 million per year, and the creation of regional transportation authorities that could generate revenue for transit projects.

The proposal has earned early approval from Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring.

“We strongly believe that transportation funding is a state obligation that requires a state solution,” Leggett and Navarro said in a joint statement Monday. “We support decisive statewide action by the General Assembly to increase revenue dedicated to transportation.”

Former County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda previously said the county should push for a local funding source for transportation projects, such as a regional gas tax.

But creating regional transit authorities, as Miller suggested, could lead to a system that favors the more-affluent areas and results in first- and second-class transportation systems, said Neil Bergsman, director of the nonprofit Maryland Budget & Tax Policy Institute.

Montgomery County could potentially raise money very quickly, while Baltimore city would have a much tougher time, he said.

“I understand Senator Miller’s frustration, and I think his proposal is a fairly political one to try to neutralize opposition to a transportation revenue increase from outlying areas,” Bergsman said.

But a 3 percent tax wouldn’t go far toward meeting the states funding needs, he said. Furthermore, lawmakers need to consider ways to counteract the potentially regressive effects of new taxes on households, such as by offering income-tax credits to lower-income families, Bergsman said.

Support for regional funding authorities is mixed among advocates of transit projects, such as the proposed Red Line and Purple Line light-rail systems.

“Any structure that would allow us to advance transportation planning and benefit the regional economic picture is good,” said Michele L. Whelly, president of the Baltimore-based Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. Whether the funding comesfrom a statewide measure or a regional authority is less important than getting the job done, she said.

Others see more certainty in a statewide approach.

Having state and local elected officials, rather than a separate transportation authority, overseeing transportation funding was likely the better option, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. He said he hadn't seen the details of Miller's proposal.

Elected officials probably would be more thoroughly involved in land-use issues, particularly if the regional authority members are appointees, Schwartz said. Transportation funding, which many see as the top priority for lawmakers this year, was noticeably absent from the legislative package announced by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) last week, and Miller prodded the governor from the Senate podium Jan. 23.

“It’s his job to lead,” Miller said. “It’s an economic development issue. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”

O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said last week that discussions about how to solve the transportation funding problem were ongoing, and no doors had been closed.

This past year, O’Malley proposed phasing in a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline, but the measure failed to move forward. He also has suggested a one-cent increase to the overall sales tax to pay for transportation projects.

Miller’s proposed sales tax would be in addition to the state’s 23.5-cent per gallon tax for gasoline, and local jurisdictions would have the power to assess a new, additional local gas tax of up to 5 cents per gallon, the Senate president told reporters Thursday.

In addition, at least one regional transportation authoritywould be created that could raise property taxes to pay for transit projects such as the Purple Line and Red Line in the Washington and Baltimore areas, respectively, Miller said.

The precise scope of such authorities, and whether there would be one for the entire Baltimore-Washington corridor or separate authorities for each metropolitan region, still needed to be discussed, he said.

Both sides of the aisle were likely to agree that separating road funding from mass transit funding and making sure transit projects could be paid for locally were good ideas, Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 26) of Elkton said. But a tax increase wasn’t needed, he said.

“If we don’t fix how we spend the money, there’s no reason to raise more revenue,” Pipkin said, adding that too much money was being poured into transit projects that weren’t offering any return.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis said Miller’s plan was a good start to the discussion, but the devil would be in the details.

Gus Bauman, who chaired the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation, said he was pleased that a high-level government leader such as Miller was proposing to address the transportation problem, and the gas tax was likely the fairest way to raise new revenue.

But lawmakers also need to protect the state’s Transportation Trust Fund from future raids, he said. In past years, money has been borrowed from the fund to balance the state’s budget.

“I’m convinced that without that protection, it is very hard to get people on board to do what is necessary,” Bauman said.

Bauman’s commission recommended in 2011 the state raise an additional $870 million per year for transportation projects.

dleaderman@gazette.net