Greater Greater Washington

Raise Maryland's gas tax? Only if it'll be spent wisely

Would you give away your money if you had little idea where it was going? Probably not. But that is what could happen to Maryland residents if the General Assembly passes a gas tax bill that doesn't give us a better plan for how our transportation dollars are spent.


Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Right now, Governor O'Malley is working on a bill to levy a 6% sales tax on gasoline, adding about 18¢ to the current 23½¢ gas tax at current prices. He says the revenue will go toward transportation, but that could mean a lot of things, including the same bad priorities that created the traffic we have today.

The Maryland Department of Transportation cites billions of dollars in spending priorities from the counties as a key reason to raise the gas tax. But those priorities are often costly road expansions that can cost billions of dollars, compete with transit or pedestrian and bicycle facilities for funding, and do more harm than good for the goal of creating more walkable places and better transportation choices.

For example, in Montgomery County, the state will build a $63 million interchange at Georgia Avenue (MD 97) and Randolph Road, to speed up traffic near the Glenmont Metro station. With ramps and longer crossings, the interchange will further degrade pedestrian access to nearby shopping from residences.

For the amount spent on this project, the county could build much of the long-discussed Georgia Avenue bus rapid transit project from Wheaton to Olney instead.

Montgomery County is pushing another grade-separated interchange at the Veirs Mill Road (MD 586) and Randolph Road. Based on past experience, we can expect that the planned Veirs Mill bus rapid transit project (the county's largest bus route) will continue to lose out to the expensive interchange for priority.

The interchange would not only compete for funds with this proposed rapid bus corridor, it would also make conditions much worse for the many pedestrians who cross these roads to stores and bus stops at the intersection. Read the whole list of the county's priority transportation projects here.

In Prince George's, despite numerous setbacks, the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia development project outside the Capital Beltway and miles from the nearest Metro station still maintains a top ranking on the list from local elected officials. The price tag for the road infrastructure to serve this massive tract of largely undeveloped land is $460 million.

The transportation projects would convert Pennsylvania Avenue (MD 4) into a freeway from the Capitol Beltway to Woodyard Road (MD 223), and add 4 interchanges along the way. The Westphalia plan calls for adding 14,000-15,300 new residential units and up 6 million square feet of commercial space.

The county transportation lists also contain important transit, bike, and pedestrian projects, but often these proposals languish while road projects advance. Other important transit, pedestrian, bicycle, and complete streets solutions never even make the list. We need to fund projects that meet the growing demand for more transportation choices that save time, energy, and money.

If Marylanders are asked to pay more, each dollar must be invested wisely. Residents need better and more affordable transportation choices. So where should this money go?

First, let's fix Maryland's existing infrastructure, like our aging roads, bridges and transit systems. Then, let's build modern transit to move more people efficiently and competitively, while providing alternatives to congested highways like the Beltway, I-95, and I-270. It's long past time for critical rail investments like the Purple Line, Baltimore Red Line and MARC expansion, and better bus service.

At the local level, state revenue to local governments should go to fix and maintain local street connections, sidewalks, and bikeways for existing communities.

Moreover, given high unemployment, smart growth transit options can help the economy. Public transportation and road maintenance are the biggest job creators. According to the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, investments in road maintenance projects create 9% more jobs than spending on new highway capacity; increasing transit capacity creates 19% more jobs than new highway capacity.

If Marylanders are going to pay more, we deserve to know what the money will buy. We need a bill that that specifies smart, fix-it-first policies for the state. Otherwise, we're just throwing our money into the dark.

Laura DeSantis is the Online Advocacy and Outreach Specialist for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Prior to joining CSG, Laura worked at Fleishman-Hillard Communications, where she worked on digital and social media strategy for clients. Laura is a 2009 graduate of Penn State University and holds bachelor's degrees in Public Relations and History. 
Cheryl Cort is Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She works with community activists, non-profit groups and government agencies to promote transit-oriented development, housing choices, economic development and pedestrian safety, especially in less affluent communities. 

Comments

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MD SHA is one of the most tone-deaf agencies I've ever dealt with and the state highway is the biggest detriment to the vitality of close-in suburbs. They could care less about pedestrian and bicyclist comfort and safety. It's all about vehicle throughput.

by thump on Feb 8, 2012 3:09 pm • linkreport

Yep. Again, an honest proposal to raise the gas tax and smarter growth advocates want to kill it.

Shame, shame.

by charlie on Feb 8, 2012 5:00 pm • linkreport

@charlie-Who said that? Really? Who?

by thump on Feb 8, 2012 5:25 pm • linkreport

I agree. If Maryland wants to levy a sales tax on gas, that pool of revenue should be devoted exclusively to improving public transit and reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles traveling on the state's already-too-crowded roads.

[T]ransit puts Families First by decreasing the number of cars on the road, reducing emissions in the air and creating a healthier environment. The O’Malley / Brown Administration is committed to addressing the growing demand for public transit and is dedicated to making this highly cost-effective and environmentally-conscious mode of transportation as readily available as possible to the people of Maryland.

So says the state on its website. If they believe it, they should put their money where their mouth is.

by Braldey Heard on Feb 8, 2012 6:10 pm • linkreport

It amazes me that Maryland is ostensibly considered to be a very "blue, liberal" state, yet when it comes to transportation policy, it's often more conservative than any nearby jurisdiction.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 8, 2012 9:26 pm • linkreport

It is counter-productive for groups that support smart growth to oppose Governor O'Malley's proposal.

The authors of this article are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. They ignore an important reason for increasing the gas tax: behavioral change.

Higher gas taxes will reduce the amount people drive. That is a good thing.

by WRD on Feb 8, 2012 9:37 pm • linkreport

Higher gas taxes will reduce the amount people drive.

Except that the money will be spent on improving the suburban road network and making connections to new housing developments; this will increase the amount of driving.

by goldfish on Feb 9, 2012 2:37 am • linkreport

@Goldfish--

You mean "might be spent."

by WRD on Feb 9, 2012 8:27 am • linkreport

@WRD: will be spent.

Been to Montgomery or Prince George's county lately, particularly outside the beltway (where most of it is)? 99.50% cars on the roads, 0.49% buses and other transit, 0.01% walking. Maryland essentially has a suburban culture that is lived by some four million people, and is supported and serviced by huge business interests with generous lobbying budgets. Urban areas like Bethesda will get leftovers, unless they build some roads -- as it should be, since nearly all of the money will come from suburban and rural taxpayers. And since this a state tax, there are even larger rural sections that also demand $ for roads that have absolutely no use for transit.

I'll wager you one Ride-on bus fare that that almost all of the money will be spent on roads.

by goldfish on Feb 9, 2012 9:39 am • linkreport

The lions share will go to roads, but the fraction of total funding going to roads will be less with the tax increase than would otherwise be the case. Transit and bike-ped are priorities that the Administration (and most key staff) want to move forward on, but the political reality is they are still viewed a bit like luxuries. So they are the first to be cut when funding is tight, while they get a larger share when funding is available.

It is also realistic to assume that this sales tax will eventually offset some (ideally all) of the general fund subsidy to the transportation trust fund. The trust fund will still be subsidized (since a sales tax would be funding it) but a bit less so than today.

by Jim Titus on Feb 9, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

Jim Titus: The trust fund will still be subsidized (since a sales tax would be funding it) but a bit less so than today.
Your circular reasoning is making me dizzy...

by goldfish on Feb 9, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

Money is fungible, so trying to assign any tax funds to any certain objective is misleading. Fact is, the taxes on gasoline are too low, and the price of gasoline too low to discourage the absurd purchase and use of "light trucks" -- SUVs -- where more efficient passenger cars would do. Yes, the taxes on gasoline should go up, and what's done with the proceeds is irrelevant. Do not let the "better" become the enemy of the "good".

by Jack on Feb 9, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

@Jack: What's done with the proceeds is very relevant. There is a significant correlation between roadway miles per capita and vehicle miles traveled per capita. The more roads are built or expanded, the more cars there are on the road. It's hard to see the "better" in endless roadway expansion. That policy has many negative financial, safety, and environmental results, plus it's not even very effective at reducing traffic congestion.

by Laurence Aurbach on Feb 9, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

The issues are separate: a gas tax for state revenues, for whatever purpose; and what state revenues are spent for. The gas tax ought to be higher, and gasoline prices ought to be higher. Then, independently, allocate revenues according to what's sensible.

What's good is the higher gasoline tax. Do not let that be opposed by the "better", tying that tax to a notion to require the money to be spent on any specific objective.

by Jack on Feb 9, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

@charlie: ditto

@Geoffrey Hatchard:
Conservative transportation policy? Okay so what are these nearby states have more "liberal" transportation policies?

You can't possibly be talking about Virginia which is about as red in Richmond as Annapolis is blue. I'm pretty sure McDonnell's transportation plan focuses very heavily on highways. Also, building the Silver Line above ground was very liberal of them, not to mention that Dulles may never see a Metro station if liberal Loudoun County follows through on dropping out of the project.

McDonnell's Transportation Priorities:
- Widen I-66
- Hot Lanes on I-495, I-395/95
- Outer Beltway/3rd Potomac Crossing
[- Finish Silver Line which Gov. Kaine started]

O'Malley's Transportation Priorities:
- Purple Line Light Rail
- Red Line Light Rail
- Continue progress on MARC Growth and Investment Plan
- CCT Light Rail/BRT
[- Finish the ICC started by Gov. Ehrlich]

Now you tell me who has the more "liberal" priorities.

As for Pennsylvania, maybe you haven't driven through that state in a while or taken transit in Philly, or the poor upkeep of the highways and disrepair of the antiquated SEPTA system would be clear to you.

West Virginia??? LOL. Delaware? Doesn't really have a transportation system (no airport, no transit system, only ~25 miles of interstate). DC is a city, so in an apples-to-apples comparison would be compared to Baltimore (which it does trump).

by King Terrapin on Feb 9, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

King Terrapin: I said often, not all the time. I was born in Pennsylvania and my family is from Philadelphia, so I'll assume that I know more about the state than you assume, thank you very much.

You have some great assertions. Governors don't create transportation policy in a vacuum, though. There are things called "legislative branches of government" that they have to work with.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 9, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

@Goldfish. Please let me know whether this helps.

Today, the subsidy to the trust fund includes both (a) direct transfers from the general fund and (b) the exemption from the sales tax.

Making gasoline subject to the sales tax does not really end that subsidy unless the new sales tax goes entirely to the general fund. But it won't go entirely to the general fund. Maybe none of it will. So the subsidy does not change.

But I think it will go down a bit, because I expect the first subsidy to decline a bit.

by Jim Titus on Feb 9, 2012 9:05 pm • linkreport

@Jim Titus: Yes that clarifies things.

I have a problem with the point of view that not taxing something -- no gasoline sales tax -- is a subsidy, because there are other taxes on it. (This implies that EVERY money-for-something exchange should have a sales tax, which is not the case.) The real subsidy is the transfer from the general fund. If more money is needed for roads, the proper thing to do is increase the tax per gallon gas, and eliminate the transfer from the general fund.

by goldfish on Feb 10, 2012 8:12 am • linkreport

I guess you guys that want this tax must be making over 110k a year or more us that break our back and work hard every day for less than 50k have a hard time living in Maryland. Not all of us can afford to live close to bus, train and commuter lines. Raising the cost of gas in any way raises the cost of everything we buy because 99% of the raw materials and the finished goods we buy travels this country by truck at some point. If you guys have a bunch of money sitting around then go ahead and donate it to the state and get off our backs. If we did not have so many programs offering everything to people who do nothing then we would be in a heck of a better place.

by Poor resident on Feb 10, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

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