Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.’s proposal to allow Maryland’s counties to impose their own 5-cent-per-gallon gas tax to pay for transportation projects is receiving an icy reception in some counties, where officials say anti-tax anger would be directed at them.
Anne Arundel County Council Chairman Jerry Walker (R) said that short of having the votes for a gas tax increase in the General Assembly, “this way the members of the House and Senate can say, ‘We didn’t vote for the tax, we just give the counties the authority to tax.’”
With transportation experts calling on the need for new roads and public transit to ease traffic congestion, ranked the worst in the nation in a recent study, Miller’s proposal is going to face a tough challenge in the General Assembly, predicted Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Dist. 15) of Germantown, who co-sponsored the chamber president’s two bills.
Under Miller’s plan, the state would charge a 3 percent sales tax to wholesalers plus a 5-cent-per-gallon increase to the existing gas tax that counties and Baltimore city could keep all of, or a portion of, to fund county transportation projects. The portion the counties failed to keep would revert to the state.
Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach also is calling for the establishment of up to two regional transit authorities to oversee the funding and development of mass transit projects in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas.
While a coalition of business and labor groups had supported an increase in the state’s 23.5-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax to pay for needed transportation work, different plans over the past two years have failed to garner political support from many state legislators fearful of voter backlash against a gas tax hike, which polls indicate is highly unpopular.
“I give the Senate president a lot of credit,” Garagiola said. “He’s demonstrating political courage in putting this conversation on the table. This is the only vehicle to move this forward.”
But not all agree.
“In my opinion, that is a highly political move meant to box in counties like Anne Arundel that lean Republican and as such are tax averse or have politicians who do not believe in raising taxes at this point,” Walker said.
If Miller’s proposal is passed, counties would have three years to implement the gas tax, and if the counties chose not to, the state still would charge the additional 5 cents per gallon, with the money going to the general transportation fund instead of the county, Walker said.
That means officials like himself would have to choose whether to implement the tax and keep the additional revenues in the county or see the money generated in the county possibly pay for transportation projects elsewhere.
Like the state, which pays for state highways and bridges, counties are struggling to find enough money for county roads and bridges, he said.
In 2007, the state sent his county $30 million for transportation, but that figure dropped to under $1 million in 2010, Walker said. The amount has increased to $3 million in this year’s budget.
“You can imagine what that has had on our ability to fund infrastructure projects,” Walker said.
While Walker called Miller’s proposal the political equivalent of punting the football, the Senate president believes the proposal has support in the counties.
“They want us to act, and act now,” Miller said.
County officials he has heard from “reacted favorably to them having an opportunity to have a local tax, and it’s within their discretion whether or not they want to use it,” he said.
Miller, who has been critical of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) lack of leadership on the issue — the governor’s legislative agenda didn’t include a new transportation initiative — specifically mentioned that the Montgomery County Council was upset that the state had not moved forward on transportation.
Montgomery County Council Chairwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring said she appreciates that Miller is at least offering a proposal, but that the county believes it is the state’s responsibility.
“The bottom line is we have to raise revenues somehow,” Navarro said. “But it has to be a statewide obligation.”
She and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) issued a joint statement Jan. 28 stressing the state’s responsibility to raise the revenues.
“We strongly believe that transportation funding is a state obligation that requires a state solution,” they said.
The annual Texas A&M Transportation Institute study ranked the Washington, D.C., region, including suburban Maryland, as having the worst traffic congestion in the nation. The study said the congestion would only worsen, with drivers losing hours of time and wasting gallons of fuel each week stuck in traffic.
The General Assembly should worry about the cost of not doing something for transportation projects more than the price they would pay politically from raising a statewide gas tax, Navarro said.
“I’m not sure the public understands how critical this point in time is,” Navarro said. “It’s critical to the economy. Transportation is the linchpin.”
Howard County Executive Kenneth Ulman (D) has taken the position that revenues are needed for transportation projects throughout the state, said his spokesman, David Nitkin.
“It would be best to have a statewide solution, but if that’s not possible — and statewide solutions have been discussed for years and not been adopted — we should keep an open mind about other alternatives,” Nitkin said.
Ulman is not convinced a county-level gas tax is the best solution, Nitkin said.
“But it’s an alternative he’s willing to consider if it helps us make progress on getting the funding sorely needed,” Nitkin said.
Ulman, however, has not asked the county’s delegation to support Miller’s bills.
“There’s a real risk in having a piecemeal transportation network instead of a statewide transportation network,” Nitkin said.
The state needs to act now because planned projects are on hold due to a lack of funding, Garagiola said.
“It’s an especially heavy lift, but we need to do this, and if we don’t do it now next year it’s going to be more politically difficult,” Garagiola said. “We’re 17 months out from the next primary election.”
But failure to act means projects such as the Purple Line in Montgomery County will continue to be on hold, he said. Traffic congestion means a lower quality of life, lost hours of work and lost economic opportunities from businesses that will not want to expand or locate in the area, he said.
“You want to be number 1 in a lot of things, but you don’t want to be number 1 in traffic congestion,” Garagiola said.
Staff Writer Daniel Leaderman contributed to this report.