Greater Greater Washington

Support Maryland's economy, increase the gas tax

Improving Maryland's transportation network isn't just about being "green," or even moving people and goods. It's about supporting our regional economy, and a small increase in the gas tax can go a long way.


Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Earlier this week, University of Maryland Diamondback columnist Andrew Do argued that increasing Maryland's gas tax would be a "burden" and a "punishment" on drivers. With gas prices nearing $4 a gallon, I'm sure many drivers feel the same way. But what a gas tax can accomplish is well worth it.

Forty years ago, the state of Maryland set up the Transportation Trust Fund, a dedicated funding source for the Maryland Department of Transportation. It gets money from a variety of sources, ranging from the gas tax to car registration fees and transit fares. In recent years, however, it has been depleted not by mismanagement, as Do suggests, but by falling revenues and rising costs.

The gas tax works because you pay for what you use. Those who drive more place more wear and tear on our roads, and they should pay to maintain them. Out-of-state drivers also use our roads, and the gas tax allows them to pay their fair share.

Currently, the gas tax is currently 23.5¢ per gallon, the same as it was in 1992. Meanwhile, construction costs for have doubled. At this rate, the Transportation Trust Fund will run out in 2018. That means no money for transit, no money for roads, and no money to even maintain what we already have.

Even if you don't use public transit, you reap the benefits of it. Each day, over 700,000 Marylanders take transit, including the Metro, the MTA, and local transit providers like Montgomery County's Ride On, to work, school and other activities.

Not only do they get an alternative to sitting in traffic, they reduce congestion for everyone else by not driving. A study of our regional transit network's benefits found that it saves us 148,000 hours a day from being lost to traffic congestion and 40.5 million gallons of fuel each year. If not for transit, we would need to build over 1,000 new lane-miles of highways, the equivalent of adding 15 lanes to the Capital Beltway.

On top of that, every dollar we invest in transit generates $6 in local economic activity. That means more jobs, stronger businesses, and more tax revenue to pay for transportation and other public services. Traffic congestion already burdens our region with wasted time, wasted gas and wasted money. As our state continues to grow, our transportation network needs to grow or it will only get worse.

That means building the Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, the Baltimore Red Line between Woodlawn and the city, and the Corridor Cities Transitway between Shady Grove and Clarksburg. It means expanding MARC commuter rail so it runs all day, every day. And it means investing in our existing roads and bridges, ensuring that they can handle current and future traffic.

Like many transportation projects around the country, these efforts may get part of their funding from the federal government, but they need to know that Maryland has some skin in the game as well. If we don't find matching funds for crucial projects like the Purple Line and the Red Line this year when they come up for federal review, they may never get built.

Given, many people in Maryland do drive. Personally, I drive a 2003 Honda Civic, whose gas tank holds about 11 gallons. If our gas tax were raised 14.5¢ a gallon, which would bring it back to where it was in 1992 with inflation, it would cost me $1.59 extra to fill up.

Is that too much to ask? Some, like Andrew Do, might say yes. But it's a small price to pay for securing Maryland's economic future. I urge anyone who truly cares about our state's future to join Get Maryland Moving in the fight for more transportation funding now. You can visit our website, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and sign our petition calling on Maryland legislators to act now.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

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If our gas tax were raised 14.5¢ a gallon, which would bring it back to where it was in 1992 with inflation, it would cost me $1.59 extra to fill up.

This is assuming that all of the tax is passed directly to consumers, which we have seen is not the case. Sure, gas prices will go up, but almost certainly by an amount that is significantly less than the tax increase.

Otherwise, I agree with you. The MD gas tax needs to go up, and it needs to go up soon.

by Gray on Feb 22, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

That means no money for transit, no money for roads, and no money to even maintain what we already have.
That I think is a bit misleading. The state will still have revenues coming in each year from the existing revenue sources and the federal government, it just won't be enough to start any new 'construction' projects. Maintenance will continue, although over time may have to be reduced in scope. I'm not saying there is not a need for new revenue, but this seems to dramatize the situation a bit.

I don't understand why the Senate President's plan has not gotten better reviews. It raises the state wide tax some (to pay for maintenance and some road capacity enhancements, and allows local governments to raise it further (to pay for in-county projects only - wouldn't someplace like Montgomery County want this? The complaint is money is taxed in MoCo and spent elsewhere, so why not have a tax you know will stay local?), and the third to set up regional authorities around the urban areas of Washington and Baltimore to fund the transit expansions. No more western MD or the Eastern Shore whining that they are paying for services they won't use, and less of the urban counties whining that they pay for the rest of the state to have services.

I'm curious Dan and others, what's everyone's take on the idea of a 'gas tax' vs a wholesale tax vs a sales tax? Does it really matter in your eyes which tax method is used, so long as the tax is there?

by Gull on Feb 22, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

I fully agree with you and apparently so does the County Executive Legget who said as much in his recent State of the County speech recently. When gas prices spiked several years ago there was a tremendous increase in the use of public transportation, so why not incentivise this behavior while funding the very behavior we are trying to insentivise? We've spent too many years incentivising driving, it's time to balance the equation in favor of an outcome most regard as beneficial to society as a whole.

by Thayer-D on Feb 22, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

It seems like a Catch-22, where no one wants to give up (or reduce) their driving habits because they still see it as the best option, but the only way to increase transit usage is to have people either leave their cars or contribute a few dollars toward providing a better network of public transit.

Sadly, in some cases driving is hands down the best option, so I can see why Andrew Do is against the tax. But he doesn't seem to realize the whole point is to invest towards providing more opportunities to get around, which won't happen if, for example, the Purple Line isn't built.

Maryland will just have to ignore the opposition and push some legislation through, because we all need to do our fair share and contribute more toward improving mobility throughout the entire region.

Great article.

by Jason L. on Feb 22, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

I would support the tax if they get rid of those annoying red light cameras. Seems like a fair trade-off. Not because I drive recklessly, but because those things make driving unpleasant. At one intersection near me the red light camera relentelessly snaps pictures even if you come to a full stop 5 yards behind the line.

I'm in no hurry to see the Purple Line destroy a bike trail. Somehow that doesn't seem progressive.

by Chris on Feb 22, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

It's not destroying a bike trail. It's going to run along the bike trail. And in any case the only reason we got the bike trail was with the explicit provision that it would one day also have a light rail line.

by drumz on Feb 22, 2013 3:08 pm • linkreport

@Chris

We can't destroy the Capital Crescent Trail where it doesn't exist (i.e., in Silver Spring).

by dan reed! on Feb 22, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

@Chris
The Purple Line will BUILD a bike trail between two major populations centers not destroy one. Biking to Bethesda from Silver Spring on a skinny,wheeled bike currently requires cutting through Rock Creek with some long steep climbs. It will be nice to one day take a safe, gentle ride into downtown Bethesda with my children.

by Brian on Feb 22, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

From the original column.

State taxpayers shouldn’t be punished because the government can’t fund its projects

It's not a punishment. It's a tax paid by people who buy gasoline to fund transportation projects. Many of the projects have the explicit goal of reducing gasoline consumption.

and

The truth is, everyone, even those who claim to be environmentally cautious (like me), still drive a gasoline-fueled car — even the governor still rides in his gas-guzzling SUV. Almost everyone will be burdened by this tax.

So the answer is to not fund any alternative transportation projects thus ensuring that people who want to be "environmentally cautious" really don't have any other choice but to drive?

by drumz on Feb 22, 2013 3:13 pm • linkreport

I can't speak to the Silver Spring section as I haven't tried biking that way (usually headed south toward Georgetown), but the plans I have seen for Bethesda call for the rail line to pave over most of the pretty, wide tree-lined trail that currently exists, and just leave a narrow corridor on the side for pedestrians and cyclists. I believe they also call for eliminating the trail under Wisconsin Ave, so that cyclists will have to contend with traffic at street level to cross.

by Chris on Feb 22, 2013 3:29 pm • linkreport

It's disappointing that Gov. O'Malley has put the gas tax increase on the backburner this legislative session. Dan gave an excellent argument as to why a gas tax increase is absolutely critical (and not a half-baked 3% increase, but a full 6%) and I just want to re-stress these points.

The Purple Line is absolutely critical to the continued economic development of the burgeoning inside-the-Beltway communities in Montgomery and northern Prince George's and is the most important transportation project in the state.

Similarly, the Red Line will be instrumental in Baltimore remaining economically competitive and catching up to other cities that have reversed their population declines while it hasn't. The CCT will help the large upcounty communities of Gaithersburg and Germantown stay relevant and continue to grow in a smart way while minimizing traffic impacts.

In addition to the three critical projects above, other projects that would benefit from rejuvenated transportation funding would be a Southern MD light rail line connecting Waldorf to the Branch Ave Metro station, as well as the ongoing MARC commuter rail improvements.

The Baltimore Sun editors also wrote an excellent editorial on the absurd arguments against the tax:

by King Terrapin on Feb 22, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

@Chris:

I can't speak to the Silver Spring section as I haven't tried biking that way (usually headed south toward Georgetown), but the plans I have seen for Bethesda call for the rail line to pave over most of the pretty, wide tree-lined trail that currently exists, and just leave a narrow corridor on the side for pedestrians and cyclists. I believe they also call for eliminating the trail under Wisconsin Ave, so that cyclists will have to contend with traffic at street level to cross.

By all means, you should definitely base policy prescriptions on your incomplete recollection of what the plans would actually entail.

by Gray on Feb 22, 2013 4:16 pm • linkreport

Chris
Indeed the Purple Line will cut about a block of the CC trail out, specifically that part around Wisconsin ave. They are still considering including a tunnel for the trail but it seems likely even if built, it would be a walk your bike kind of deal.

However, this is hardly MOST of the CC trail. Over by silver spring the trail does not even exist, and it will be getting a nice overhead deal.

The difference here is that people in Bethesda have been mislead or uninformed and responded with "we want our CC trail as it is, no question" while Silver Spring has been there to work with planners.

by Richard Bourne on Feb 22, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

Advocating raising the gas tax to fund transit looks at things from the wrong perspective. The current system has myriad complicated subsidies that hide the true costs.

Currently drivers are subsidized out of general revenue. If we ask drives to pay for transit, they will rightly complain that they are being stiffed for transit.

Lets turn it around, and only ask that the gas tax cover the costs of driving, like it was supposed to. Lets also add in sales tax, like we do for everything else, except food.

Because the state will not have to constantly subsidize road users, money is freed up for transit. The end result is simpler, and transparent.

by SJE on Feb 22, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

That's great that Silver Spring is getting a bike trail, and I fully support it. But that doesn't make running a train over the existing trail sound more appealing.

Here is the trail today:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecourtyard/1123494630/in/set-72157601464445257/

And after: as seen in the conceptual sketch below, the current width of the trail will be reduced to maybe a third if its current size, and be bounded by concrete walls and, well, a train:

http://bethesda.patch.com/articles/new-renderings-unveiled-for-bethesda-purple-line-station#photo-12633924

Not a step forward for natural beauty in my book.

by Chris on Feb 22, 2013 6:07 pm • linkreport

Well,

A: it doesn't look so bad at all, that's just personal preference.

B: it would be concerning if preserving natural beauty was the sole consideration. But it's not, providing transit options is a greater concern.

C: the ROW of the trail may be reduced but the paved area (the actual usable part by cyclists and walkers will remain the same width.

by Drumz on Feb 22, 2013 6:19 pm • linkreport

@Chris:

The CCT will be rebuilt alongside the Purple Line as a 12' wide trail - wider than it is today in Chevy Chase. Plus it will be extended for an additional 1.6+ miles into Silver Spring, to be much more complete than it is now. Plus it will have grade separated crossings of Conn. Ave, Jones Mill Road, 16th Street and Colesville Road. Plus it will be paved!.

If you never ride the trail beyond Chevy Chase, I guess none of that matters. But for all of the rest of us, it is a big deal.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Feb 22, 2013 6:25 pm • linkreport

Again, extending the CCT into Silver Spring sounds like a great idea.

Eliminating most of the plant life along a couple miles of the existing trail? Not so much.

It is not the 12 feet of trail that makes it a pretty, relaxing place for a walk or bike ride, it is the lush vegetation and trees on both sides. If you haven't ridden/walked it, I recommend it. It's very pleasant (well, better in the spring than now).

Now, if you tell me the Purple Line would get rid of those huge swarms of cars clogging roads on their way to NIH in the mornings, then maybe losing the parkland would be worth it.

by Chris on Feb 22, 2013 6:51 pm • linkreport

Chris, you keep moving the goal posts.

First you say if its worth losing the trail, then you just don't want the trail narrowed, now you're saying its the trees that you're worried about.

Anyway, what's going to prevent the purple line being built is not the (faux) environmental concerns of people who don't want the train at all but the inability to pay for it and other projects like the Baltimore red line which definitely won't be disturbing any nature areas (neither is the purple line really but anyway).

by Drumz on Feb 22, 2013 10:13 pm • linkreport

Chris,
The whole reason they saved this rail line (in the 80's) as a trail was to eventually turn it into a trolley line between Silver Spring and Bethesda. I'm not sure why that's not mentioned more. As for the losing the "park land", the whole idea of smart growth and transit in particular is to move more people more efficiently that would have otherwise contributed to more asthma and global warming, so to talk about the purple line ripping out lovely nature is a bit misleading.

It's like the people who say Al Gore is a hypocrite becasue he fly's planes to spread his message or that Jefferson was nothing but a slave owner. The purple line is not about pulling off some of the cars that are currently on the road (allthough it will certainly do this) it's about absorbing those new residents that might otherwise add another car to the current congestion. This area is growing, something most employed and unemployed people are gratefull for, and if we're going to accomodate this trend in the future, we have to be smarter about how we accomodate this.

Once they build this much needed trolley, I will be the first to make sure they plant as much on adjacent properties as they've taken away, but planting some trees and bushes will be the easiest part, getting people to move away from having to drive for all their needs is the real challange, one that the purple line address's head on.

by Thayer-D on Feb 23, 2013 12:41 am • linkreport

Chris:

One point lost to many who oppose having rail on the trail is what is waiting in the wings - Bus Rapid Transit.

The need for better, higher capacity east-west transit is only going to increase. Neighter East-West Highway nor Jones Bridge Road can be expanded to carry dedicated transit lanes needed for that kind of transit at any reasonable cost or impact compared to on the old Georgetown Branch Rail corridor. We're NOT going to have transit in a deep tunnel because of the cost - several times that of the Purple Line.

BRT is being tauted as the cheap alternative to the Purple Line, and it physically fits just as easily into the Georgetown Branch Corridor as does light rail. And BRT on Jones Bridge Road, pushed by the Town of Chevy Chase, has already been studied and rejected.

I think rail is the best choice for the Purple Line, many of the reasons have been discussed often here on this blog. But if not rail, then it is very likely you will have buses (many, many buses) in your future alongside the Capital Crescent Trail. I doubt that you will consider that to be a win for the trail.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Feb 23, 2013 7:08 am • linkreport

Back to the original article premise, I'd rather have a "cost of gasoline" increase go back into the transportation network than be sent to some desert country or some corporate big-wig who demands tax breaks even though their company reaps billions in profits every year...

by Froggie on Feb 23, 2013 7:57 am • linkreport

This simplistic article will make me contact legislators to request they vote against the gas tax. How naive, do you really think $1.59 more a gallon is all you will pay?

How much more to you think you will pay for groceries that are delivered by Truck?? Your food will cost more, your clothes will cost more and on and on. Roads benefit everyone who eats in Maryland.

How many more taxes do you think people can take Maryland has raised income taxes, fees for bridges tunnels etc

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by skins281 on Feb 23, 2013 9:34 am • linkreport

@ skins281:How many more taxes do you think people can take

Maryland can not have a deficit. So, when there is a clear desire to maintain infrastructure and build new stuff, there are two options: Raise taxes (on the use of infrastructure) and cut spending elsewhere.

You are assuming a false choice: That Maryland can keep going without changing the way it pays for stuff. It can not. Tax go up, infrastructure gets neglected or other spending (schools, health care) gets cut. Those are your options.

by Jasper on Feb 23, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport

How much more to you think you will pay for groceries that are delivered by [t]ruck?

Um, I think that all else being equal, we will pay less than we pay now. With funded infrastructure improvements, drivers’ time and fuel needs will decrease. With fewer Maryland drivers aimlessly putting around on subsidized gasoline, trucks will have an easier time making deliveries. The same thing happens when drivers get out of their cars and onto public transportation, bicycles, and foot. Less unnecessary driving means less traffic, lower insurance premiums, better health -- and yes, cheaper food -- for all.

by Sydney on Feb 23, 2013 1:43 pm • linkreport

Heres the thing

In the past month the price of gas has gone up more than a quarter. Has the MD or US economy fallen apart? Have people stopped driving (which would be when you really know things have gotten too expensive).

You could double the gas tax between now and Easter and it would have little effect on the economy of the state.

The idea that ANYONE would notice a 5 cents a year increase, even if it went on for two decades is ludicrous. Gas can swing five cents overnight.

ANd yes, I understand there are some people who are living on the edge of poverty for who it would be a big deal. But thats gonna be the same for any change in the price of anything.

by Tom A on Feb 23, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

ok cannot resist commenting on some of these points. The public is getting older, are you going to have senior citizens out on bikes??? How about people with disabilities, they suppose to ride a bike?

Go to the grocery store, get groceries for family of 5, exactly how do you bring them home on a bike.

If gas is more, everything else goes up, air fare, food clothing, and viturally anything else. Companies are not in business to lose money so if it is going to cost them more, guess who is going to pay == you are.

I own a business that involves transportation costs to customers and you can bet that the increase is getting added to my bill.

by skins281 on Feb 23, 2013 4:41 pm • linkreport

As an older, disabled person with many children, I am happy to pay full freight for my real transportation needs, and will continue to pay more and more at your small business -- if that means the planet, the economy and my fellow citizens as a whole are better off. Or, at least, after a half century of nearly free ridership, I’ll pay a nickel a gallon more for gas and a few bucks for storing my vehicle on the public roadway.

Let's be honest though: the disabled senior citizen who lives in the suburbs and parties on U Street but has to shop for a brood of permanently-young kids represents a tiny red herring that attempts to distort the policy discussion.

by Sydney on Feb 23, 2013 4:56 pm • linkreport

Skins281: part of the problem is that we have built our lives, communities, transport and economy around cheap gas. Plenty of other places survive with gas 4 x the price, but there are less sprawling suburbs.

by SJE on Feb 23, 2013 5:35 pm • linkreport

@SJE: Okay, so that's an argument for not doubling the price of gas immediately.

How about doing it slowly . . . like, say, starting with an increase of a few percentage points, as has been proposed in MD?

by Gray on Feb 23, 2013 6:04 pm • linkreport

@SJE
"Currently drivers are subsidized out of general revenue. If we ask drives to pay for transit, they will rightly complain that they are being stiffed for transit".

Drivers already are stiffed for transit. State and local road construction and maintenance are subsidized out of general revenue making up ~48% of the cost of the roads, interstates less, transit is subsidized 100% in the construction and anywhere from 50-80% in the operations and maintenance. The real kicker is that 40% of the gas tax collected from drivers nationwide, is then reprogrammed into transit.

The silverline is a perfect example. Tolls extracted from drivers is being used to pay for 50%, or 3 BILLION dollars worth of a transit project, a project that all sides admit won't decrease traffic on the road being tolled at all.

by transit on Feb 23, 2013 6:04 pm • linkreport

Gray: I completely agree that gas taxes should be raised, more aggressively than some proposals. For example, why not immediately apply sales tax to gas, and lower the general sales tax. I just don't think that we should use that to fund transit at this time.

The strongest voice against gas taxes will come from the GOP and AAA. Making the increased revenue go to transit plays into their hands: big taxing liberals hating cars and funding their friends in the transit unions, and for another big government program.

Instead, lets use the GOP's arguments against them: the current taxes on gas are a subsidy. One way to shrink government is to make users pay. Raising the gas tax to reflect actual cost is good economics and not prone to liberal meddling. The AAA will complain, but you have removed some of their arguments. After all, you are ensuring that the roads are properly funded.

by SJE on Feb 23, 2013 7:26 pm • linkreport

Transit: I agree that the govt subsidizes transit programs. But the total amount of $ that goes to roads is far far in excess of anything that goes to transit, sidewalks, bike paths, etc. If all the gas tax money went to roads, roads would still be heavily subsidized.

by SJE on Feb 23, 2013 7:34 pm • linkreport

Drivers never benefit from transit if you ignore the whole point of transit taking cars off the road in the first place.

by Drumz on Feb 23, 2013 11:18 pm • linkreport

Do upstate New Yorkers benefit from the economic engine of New York City? Yes. Is New York City a viable proposition with our transit? No. Drivers and everybody else benefits from transit becasue it's a more efficient way to do business, and that business generates a lot of revenue. Montgomery county's tax dollars go to building schools in the eastern shore and the western part of the state.

by Thayer-D on Feb 24, 2013 7:03 am • linkreport

"a project that all sides admit won't decrease traffic on the road being tolled at all."

No, of course silver line riders will mostly be people who would otherwise have driven on FFX cty roads. The growth in Tysons may offset that, but if you are going to count that, you need to count the benefit to the county of the that growth.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 24, 2013 7:26 am • linkreport

Makes much more sense to just apply the sales tax to gasoline purchases as it will be indexed with inflation. Unfortunately the roller coaster gas prices in the past 5 years will make this an unpredicatble revenue source. Virginia is already going down this route and it makes sense. It would also make our gas station prices more competitive in MD vs surrounding states and lead to additional revenues. A local surcharge could be added for local projects.

Other revenue sources include raising tolls, requiring bicycles to have a registration at the MVA and shifing that money to bike projects.

by Cyrus on Feb 24, 2013 9:07 am • linkreport

How can you state that the Transportation fund has not been mismanaged? The Governor and legislature continuously use the fund as a piggy bank for various pet projects. If you want to ensure the Trust is maintained require that it is used solely for the purpose for which it was created. One also should remember that an increase in the gas tax corresponds to an increase in the costs of nearly all goods and services. It will cause a rise in the cost for transporting goods to market and for the transport of technicians, plumbers, etc. to provide services. All these costs will be passed on to the consumer. The rise in prices will also cause a corresponding rise in taxes on sales. This tax will bleed ordinary citizens dry. Why doesn't the Governor and legislature look out for the ordinary citizen? Curb their spending.

by Watts on Feb 24, 2013 8:18 pm • linkreport

@Watts

You lose all credibility when you say that these increases will "bleed ordinary citizens dry"

We are talking about between .10c and .25c per gallon, or beteen $60 and $150 for consumers who drive the exact same amount as before. This is .08% and .2% respectively of the average family income in Maryland. Regarding the fact that other prices may go up a bit, that seems fine to me, the actual costs of delivery SHOULD be priced into the item.

by Kyle-W on Feb 25, 2013 9:14 am • linkreport

Not only do they get an alternative to sitting in traffic, they reduce congestion for everyone else by not driving.

Is that actually true? I think the data shows that in this region, transit does not actually reduce congestion, but rather, enables congestion to grow more slowly than it would have otherwise. Congestion is still much higher now than it has ever been, even in the presence of lots of transit alternatives.

by Scoot on Feb 25, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

Scoot: congestion is much higher because the region has grown. Every now and then we get to do an experiment to study the effect of transit: e.g. the crash on the red line. Traffic gets WAY worse.

by SJE on Feb 25, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

@Scoot
Transit reduces congestion for everyone else
vs
[Transit] enables congestion to grow more slowly than it would have otherwise.

These are two facets of the same issue, you are just comparing the wrong things. In statement 1, what is meant is that transit reduces congestion from what it would otherwise be if there were no transit. That means congestion also grows more slowly than it would otherwise.

by MLD on Feb 25, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

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