Transportation hearing draws crowd, opposition in Md.

Ari Ashe,

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — More than 300 people turned out before the House Ways and Means Committee to discuss Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to raise the gas tax and replenish the Transportation Trust Fund.

According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, the bill would generate about $800 million annually by 2016 and create $3.4 billion in transportation investments during the next five years.

But the bill would also add a sales tax to gasoline, meaning the overall tax could increase from the current 23.5 cents to 42.7 cents by 2018.

“Maryland’s trust fund is broke. We need more money for transportation, including mass transit. The question is how to do it,” says Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “(Senate President) Mike Miller has a bill that would spread the pain more fairly. Gov. O’Malley’s bill would put almost all of it on motorists and would make Maryland’s gas tax fifth largest in the nation by 2018.”

The current 23.5 cent gas tax has been in place since 1992.

“Drivers have had a discount in a sense because of the flat fee. It has not been subject to inflation, like the cost of business, household goods and incomes, which have all gone up,” says Chris Thomas with CH2M Hill, an engineering and construction company.

But some gas station owners are worried that a higher gas tax will cost them customers.

“If this thing passes, it’ll put me 25 cents over the Virginia market. My customers will go across the Wilson Bridge to fill up,” says Fazal Sirhandi, who owns multiple gas stations, including one at National Harbor. “People in Prince George’s County will go to Virginia to buy gas. It’ll hurt the economy of Maryland and it’ll put me out of business.”

“If the gas tax passes, it’ll be passed on to the consumer. That means at least 20 cents more a gallon over six years on gas,” says Roseanne Biggs, who manages a gas station in Clinton, Md. “People can’t make it now, things are hard. I have customers who at the end of the month come in with change from the piggy banks to get gas until the next paycheck.”

Other critics don’t think it’s right to continue to tax Marylanders.

“It seems absurd to raise this tax. It’s 102 percent over the next two years. It’s just another burden on Marylanders we cannot afford,” says Dee Hodges, President of the Maryland Taxpayers Association.

But supporters of the bill point out that the Transportation Trust Fund will go dry without new money.

The Maryland Department of Transportation says new construction projects would virtually stop in 2017 without money.

Also projects like the Purple Line connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s County, and the Corridor Cities Transitway near I-270, would be put on hold.

“The Purple Line is critical. I would use it if I was in Bethesda and had business in Silver Spring. I would get there in 15 minutes, rather than having to around the Red Line. My neighbors are Terps fans and would more easily get to football and basketball games,” says Nick Brand with the Action Committee for Transit of Montgomery County.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker have been vocal about how important the Purple Line is to keep the two counties competitive with their neighbors in Virginia.

“We need some east-west connectivity in Montgomery County. It connects us both ends of Metro’s Red Line and makes a connection to Prince George’s County,” says Leggett.

“This revenue bill will not fully fund the Purple Line, but it gives us the funds to continue the design and compete for the federal matching funds,” says Acting Transportation Secretary Darrell B. Mobley.

In a recent letter, Mobley told the Montgomery County Council that without new money, the Purple Line will have to be put on hold.

The bill could also help Metro and MARC.

“The system is aging and it needs more investment. Money is hard to come by in any of the three jurisdictions. We’re looking for Maryland to step up and set an example by putting more money where its mouth is,” says Ben Ball with the WMATA Riders Advisory Council.

Metro’s Momentum Plan calls for several upgrades and improvements to system, including adding capacity at key transfer points like Metro Center, L’Efant Plaza and Rosslyn.

“It’s important to connect the MARC train to Greenbelt and College Park. I want weekend service, midday service, late night service. That is the best way for people to get out of their car and connect them between Baltimore and Washington,” says Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

Money from the bill will also go towards repairing aging bridges and roads.

About 500 bridges are rated in “fair” condition, meaning they are not dangerous, but to need repairs.

“Without a revenue increase, we would not be able to fix those bridges or re-pave roads that need it,” Acting Transportation Secretary Darrell B. Mobley says.

“The system is very old. Most of our roads and highways need reconstruction because there are too many potholes that are unsafe for cars and motorcycles,” President of the Maryland Asphalt Association Brian Dolan says.

A recent report from the National Transportation Research Group (Trip) found Maryland drivers spend about $1,820 each year on fuel wasted in traffic and on repairs from damage on poor roads.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 84 percent of Maryland’s roads are over 30 years old and 25 percent were built before 1930.

“Gov. O’Malley’s gas tax hike proposal doesn’t make roads in Maryland a priority and it, instead, protects the status quo of prioritizing mass transit spending which drivers overwhelming oppose,” says Nick Loffer, spokesman at Americans for Prosperity Maryland.

While Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett says the bill will create jobs in Maryland, AFP Maryland released a report last month saying the gas tax would cause 2,000 jobs to be lost.

Another criticism that came up was the “lockbox” provision, which attempts to stop lawmakers from raiding the Transportation Trust Fund again once it’s replenished.

“We must put the trust back into the Transportation Trust Fund. And that means a constitutional amendment to stop raids on the Trust Fund for other governmental purposes,” says Gus Bauman, who chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding in 2011.

Senate President Mike Miller’s bill had that constitutional amendment, but O’Malley’s bill does not.

“I think we need to have a legal mechanism to make it very difficult to transfer money out of the Transportation Trust Fund. More difficult than it has been before,” says Ulman, who has announced he’ll run for Governor next year.

Ulman stopped short of saying that he’ll support the constitutional amendment, but said it shouldn’t be touched unless it’s a financial emergency.

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