- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Gov. Martin O’Malley made a lot of political hay out of his aggressive support for same-sex marriage, the Dream Act and expanded gambling last year. Some pundits crowed about how his leadership on the contentious — even risky — issues helped position him for a possible presidential bid in 2016.
But O’Malley has fallen down on another issue that cries out at least as much for strong leadership — transportation funding. In fact, his slow descent on the issue has continued for years, fueled by raids on the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.
Criticism may have come to a head this month when powerful Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., sounding exasperated, told reporters that O’Malley has essentially abdicated on transportation funding. “It’s his job to lead,” Miller said. “It’s an economic development issue. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
When the governor presented his budget, it included $23 million in Highway User Revenues for which Maryland’s local governments have been practically begging. But everyone — from business leaders to politicians to the public — agrees that massive transportation infrastructure needs, both existing and planned, await a massive infusion of money and commitment. A commission in 2011 recommended that Maryland raise an additional $870 million a year for transportation projects.
That’s why many were hopeful that O’Malley’s legislative agenda would include a firm transportation proposal. It didn’t. His aides said that O’Malley has had discussions with Miller and is still weighing whether to reintroduce a proposal similar to last year’s: a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline or a penny hike in the overall sales tax, with the money to be directed to transportation.
Miller himself offered a proposal during an interview with The Washington Post recently in which he called for a 3 percent sales tax on gasoline that would apply to new roads and bridges.
But legislators frowned upon a gas tax hike last year, in part because gasoline prices tend to rise around the time the issue gets discussed in Annapolis.
Lawmakers, already queasy about bumping the gas tax, have another unwelcome reminder of the political danger of going that route. A new Gonzales poll released last week indicates that while more than 94 percent of respondents say Maryland’s transportation system is either “very” or “somewhat” important, only 26.7 percent would favor a 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase, roughly the amount under Miller’s plan.
The Senate president also proposed that the state approve regional authorities that could raise the property tax to pay for projects such as the Purple and Red light-rail lines in the Washington suburbs and Baltimore, respectively.
And Miller proffered the possibility of a long-term lease of the Intercounty Connector to a private operator. The money garnered from such an agreement could fund other transportation projects in the state, Miller said. While Miller’s ideas might not go far, he deserves credit for proposing them. O’Malley could learn a lesson or two.
Until the state commits to an aggressive transportation program, projects important to Southern Maryland, like the replacement of bridges over the Patuxent and Potomac rivers, will never move beyond drawings on paper.
New proposals, beyond the tired, old ones, are needed. And, the governor must show the same passion and commitment to transportation funding that he did last year on higher-profile issues. While that approach is long overdue, it’s not too late.