Rural, urban lawmakers spar over gas tax -- Gazette.Net


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Before Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) even has a chance to present his transportation funding proposal to the General Assembly committees that would determine its fate, advocates for public transit are attempting to nip rural criticisms in the bud.

“I’ve invited my colleagues from rural areas to Rockville to see what traffic is really like,” said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville.

The governor’s bill, which will restructure the way the gas tax is collected, is expected to raise $3.4 billion over the next five years, and some portion of that will have to go toward transit projects like the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway.

Just how much will go to those projects hasn’t been parsed out, but the governor’s mention of transit projects while introducing the bill has rural lawmakers calling the bill unfair, and splitting the chambers across the usual fault lines when transportation is debated.

“The governor’s bill doesn’t change anything,” said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton. “Over time, the money’s been moving away from roads and into these mass-transit projects. And only 9 percent of Marylanders use transit. It’s a mass subsidy for that nine percent.”

The bill would lower the flat 23.5-cent tax to 18.5 cents — and index that amount to increase with inflation — and gradually apply the state’s sales tax to wholesale gas sales, beginning with 2 percent this July and increasing to 4 percent in 2014. The total effect of the changes will mean an extra two cents at the pump this July, and seven cents in 2014, based on the current market.

This will mean the purchasing power of the revenue the state collects — $752.3 million in fiscal 2011 — won’t decrease over time, as it’s done in the past few decades, O’Malley spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said.

Administration officials said the decrease in purchasing power would have led the transportation fund to go almost completely broke by 2017. Any revenue collected would have gone toward maintenance and upkeep of existing roads and transit systems, with little or no money going to move proposed projects forward.

“Clearly, with this level of funding, it keeps the door open,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington. “These projects still have to go through the federal approval process, but we would never have had the ability to move forward on them without this funding.”

Even if the governor’s plan goes through the General Assembly intact, the $1.1 billion not expected to be picked up by the federal government for the Purple Line light rail, plus nearly $500 million for the Corridor Cities Transitway and around $1.8 billion for a bus rapid transit network in the county, would take up most of the revenue, if fully funded within five years.

The Purple Line will run between Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, and connect to existing transit hubs along the way. CCT is a proposed 15-mile bus rapid transit line along the I-270 corridor.

Another project, the Red Line in Baltimore, also has a price tag of about $2 billion.

“The picture is not as bad as the rural legislators say it is,” Madaleno said. “There are times, like when we build I-68 all the way through Western Maryland, and when we improve [Route] 50 from Annapolis all the way to Ocean City, and the numbers skew that way.”

In addition, Madaleno said, mass transit projects have less wiggle room when budgets get cut: Most of the money goes toward paying drivers, mechanics and train operators to keep the systems running.

“There’s far more discretion in a road budget,” Madaleno said. “You’re going to mow once a month rather than twice a month.”

Although the comptroller’s office does not collect data on how much of the revenue from the gas tax comes from each jurisdiction — the tax actually is collected from distributors, not from individual gas stations — advocates for transit projects contend that other counties have long reaped the benefits of the population and economic activity in Montgomery County.

“Like with any fund, they’re [rural counties] getting more per capita than anyone,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of Baltimore-based 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group advocating for sustainable growth. “Over time, it really does balance out.”

hnunn@gazette.net