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Posts about Gas Taxes


MARC fares may go up more than they have to

Candidate, now Governor, Larry Hogan said he opposed higher fees and taxes. Yet the Maryland Transit Administration is increasing MARC fares by more than the state law seems to require. This coincides with large cuts to tolls for drivers, raising more questions about the Hogan administration's support for transportation that runs on rails.

Photo by Austin Cross on Flickr.

The fare increase raises the one-way fare for each zone by $1, for a percent increase for Maryland riders ranging from 9% to 25%. For example, the fare for a one-zone trip, such as Union Station-Seabrook, Union Station-College Park, or Union Station-Kensington, will go up from $4 to $5 (+25%).

The fares for weekly (seven-day) tickets will increase by 45-67% for Maryland riders. For example, one-zone weekly fares will increase from $30 to $50. And the fares for monthly (good for the whole month) tickets will increase by 17-35% for Maryland riders, with one-zone monthlies increasing from $100 to $135.

These increases reflect both the one-way fare increase and a change in the formula for calculating weekly/monthly fares, from 7.5 times to 10 times the one-way fare for weeklies and 25 times to 27 times the one-way fare for monthlies.

Fares have to go up, but not this much

The Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013 requires MTA to increase MARC one-way zone fares and weekly/monthly passes in fiscal year 2015 by at least the same percentage as the 2009-2013 increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all urban consumers, to the nearest dollar. The CPI increase was about 10%.

But there is nothing in the language of the law about changing the formula for calculating the weekly/monthly fares. And the change in formula accounts for a meaningful part of the fare increase.

For example, the statutory increase in one-way fares alone would raise the price of a one-zone monthly ticket from $100 to $125 (+25%). But under MARC's fare increase, thanks to the change in formula, the ticket will cost $135, or $10 per month (8%) more.

Also, while MTA does not have to hold public hearings for fare increases required by the 2013 act, state law does require MTA to hold public hearings for other MARC fare increases.

The MARC Riders Advisory Council (MRAC) has called on Governor Hogan to delay the fare increases and hold public hearings about them because it believes that the increases are greater than state law requires. (Disclosure: I am a member of the MRAC.)

Maryland says the law requires the fare increase

MTA maintains that the fare increase is mandated by law. MTA and Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials at last week's MRAC meeting gave two reasons for changing the formulas.

The first was that people with weekly/monthly passes can now use them seven days a week. This thinking doesn't account for the whole picture, though, because only the Penn Line offers the weekend service. Trains on the Camden and Brunswick Lines continue to run Monday-Friday only.

The second was that the average number of trips on a weekly/monthly ticket has gone up and that the law requires MTA to adjust the formula based on current ridership data. The ridership data here consists of MARC conductors' daily tallies of monthly, weekly, and one-way tickets. However, MTA officials agreed with MARC riders that these data are unreliable. Also, the data say nothing about the average number of trips an average rider makes on a weekly/monthly pass. Most importantly, the text of the act says nothing about adjusting the formula for weekly/monthly tickets based on ridership data.

Responding to the MRAC's objections, MTA Administrator Paul Comfort announced a new five-day pass, with a price calculated according to the original formula (7.5 times the one-way zone fare). This is welcome news for regular MARC riders. But he also said that MTA will keep the increased new formula for monthly passes and will not hold public hearings on the resulting fare increase.

After the meeting, the MRAC again called for public hearings, specifically citing the questionable data MTA used to calculate the new formula for monthly passes.

Cut tolls, increase MARC fares

As several MRAC members pointed out at the meeting, the greater-than-minimum fare increase for monthly passes looks bad for MTA and the Hogan administration. Hogan opposed taxes, fees, and tolls as a major part of his campaign. A campaign ad from the Republican Governors Association, showing a picture of a MARC train, blamed then-governor Martin O'Malley and lieutenant governor Anthony Brown for a transit fare increase.

On May 7, the Hogan administration claimed to deliver on his "promise to...put money back in the pockets of hard-working Maryland families" with a cut in tolls for drivers. Less than three weeks later, the administration announced a MARC fare increase that is bigger than the law seems to require.

What is the Hogan administration trying to tell us? Aren't MARC riders hard-working Marylanders too?


This is what sexy infrastructure looks like, says John Oliver

Repairing infrastructure isn't as sexy as blowing it up. But this spoof from John Oliver reminds us that while it's boring, maintenance deserves urgent attention.

Oliver, host of HBO's Last Week Tonight, may be having fun with a sad reality, but his commentary before the skit is also spot on.

Nationwide, our roads and transit infrastructure are falling into disrepair. And even though each dollar spent on preventive maintenance saves at least $4 in future repairs, political leaders often opt instead for the showy ribbon cuttings that accompany new projects.


More proof gas taxes don't pay for roads

Advocacy groups that think it's a waste of money to build transit or bicycle infrastructure often argue that since gas taxes come from drivers, so should all transportation funding.

This chart from Pew shows where the transportation money comes from; it's not all drivers:

Images from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Basically, the bluish areas are revenues which come specifically from drivers: gas taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls. The greenish ones are other revenues: property taxes, general fund transfers, and other funds.

Some of the gas tax money goes to transit operations as well, but the vast majority doesn't:

Thanks to Matt Yglesias at Vox for pointing out this chart and the report.


Two senators (one of whom is a Republican!) propose a 12-cent gas tax increase

There are several proposals on the table to stave off the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (which pays for transit, biking, and walking projects too) in two months. Just now, two senators teamed up to announce one that might actually have a chance.

Photo from the Office of Senator Corker.

Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) have proposed increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years. The federal gas tax currently stands at 18.4 cents a gallon, where it has been set since 1993, when gas cost $1.16 a gallon. The senators' proposal would also extend some expiring tax cuts as a way to reduce the impact on Americans.

"I know raising the gas tax isn't an easy choice, but we're not elected to make easy decisions—we're elected to make the hard ones," said Murphy. "This modest increase will pay dividends in the long run and I encourage my colleagues to get behind this bipartisan proposal."

This proposal—while still not introduced as a formal bill—has far more potential than anything else that's been offered. President Obama's corporate tax scheme was dead on arrival, even though it had support from the Republican chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp. Rep. Peter DeFazio's idea of a per-barrel oil fee and Sen. Barbara Boxer's idea for a wholesale oil tax don't have Republican support. Neither does Rep. Earl Blumenauer's 15-cent gas tax hike, which was the most logical proposal on the table, until now. What the House Republicans want to do is fund the transportation bill by reducing Saturday postal servicea hare-brained scheme if ever there was one.

What gives this proposal a fighting chance, of course, is Bob Corker's name on it. Not only is Corker a Republican, but he's a respected leader on the Banking Committee. It's also a sign that maybe, just maybe, as we stare down the barrel of a real funding shortfall, members of Congress might find the gumption to do what they all know needs to be done: raise the gas tax.

"In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support," said Corker. "Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government. If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it."

The CBO has said that a one-cent increase in the gas tax would net $1.5 billion a year. That means this 12-cent increase would bring in exactly the $18 billion needed annually to fund the Senate's six-year transportation bill. And perhaps most importantly, Corker and Murphy propose indexing the tax to inflation so it remains viable in the future.

"A return to stable funding will ensure that our states and communities can repair aging roads, bridges and transit systems and build the infrastructure we need for a growing economy," said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, in a statement. "The alternative is to allow our transportation system to crumble along with an economy hobbled by crapshoot commutes and clogged freight corridors."

The president and CEO of AAA, which just came out in favor of a gas tax increase, agreed. "Many Americans are willing to pay a little more if it will lead to improved transportation and a better commute," said Bob Darbelnet in a statement.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog USA.


Was last year's Virginia transportation bill a bait and switch?

Last year, Virginia legislators passed a bipartisan transportation bill that promised to give Northern Virginia the authority to plan and fund its own transportation projects. Now that the money is flowing, a bevy of new bills seek to wrest control of funding from locals, and send it back to Richmond.

Dollar lure image from

The issue is that some legislators feel the only way to solve Northern Virginia's transportation problems is by building and expanding highways, and they want to prevent local governments from doing anything else. To them, money spent on public transportation is better spent on ensuring that everyone has the "freedom" to only be able to drive to work.

But unlike many parts of the state, transit has proven its value in Northern Virginia. For communities that have tried for decades to raise their own taxes to implement their own priorities, these proposals are a gross violation of bipartisan trust, and a clear bait and switch.

Bob Marshall's bills

Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Bull Run) never wanted Northern Virginia to have its own money in the first place. He unsuccessfully sued to stop the process. Since that didn't work, he's now submitted a HB40, a bill to repeal the new funds.

But that's unlikely to pass, so Marshall is hedging his bets with HB41, a bill to have the statewide Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) pick projects that Northern Virginia is allowed to build, instead of the locally-controlled Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA).

Marshall also has a third bill, HB84, to remove state elected officials from the NVTA board. That would seem to give locals more strength on the board, but if Marshall's second bill to strip NVTA of its powers goes through, what would be the point?

Jim LeMunyon's bills

Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) is trying the opposite tactic. Instead of cutting the NVTA's authority, his HB425 would increase the number of General Assembly legislators on NVTA's board, thus effectively weakening representation from the counties and cities.

A second bill, HB793, requires VDOT to suggest which projects NVTA will build. It does not ask for any input from Virginia's corresponding transit agency, the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT).

Finally, HB426 would simply bypass NVTA completely, and require VDOT to widen I-66 inside the beltway, over Arlington's objections. The bill is written so that only an auto-based option could be considered. Even when 66 already has a transit option that could be improved and extended in any number of ways that could move more people than an extra lane.

David LaRock's bills

David LaRock (R-Sterling) is sponsoring HB635, a draconian bill that would block NVTA from funding new transit projects, instead forcing them to fund only projects that help highways.

And just in case NVTA can build a case that transit projects do help highways, LaRock also filed HB653 to restrict it to using no more than 25% of its own money on mass transportation projects, no matter what.

Finally, LaRock is sponsoring two bills attempting to override the local authority that sets toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road.

HB647 would outlaw use of any state money on construction of Phase 2 of the Silver Line, unless the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) matches the toll rate for its airport lanes (currently free) to the toll rate on the Dulles Toll Road.

This is seen as a move that would force MWAA to lower its overall toll rates, since it wants to keep its Dulles access lanes as free or cheap as possible.

Lastly, LaRock has also sponsored HJ84, a resolution that asks Congress to intervene and lower the tolls set by MWAA.


Christopher Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) proposes HB2, requiring that all allocations to the Northern Virginia highway district go towards highway congestion relief projects. It's not clear whether that means only VDOT money, or all funding for Northern Virginia including NVTA money, but either way it would prohibit spending on things like safety or maintenance projects.

Finally, David Albo (R-Lorton) is sponsoring HB281, which stops NVTA from spending money on joint projects with DC or Maryland unless the costs are borne exactly equally. This would make it harder to fund regional projects like 8-car Metro trains, and could end up costing Virginia big money on projects where it would make more sense for Virginia to contribute less than 50%.

Stark contrast

These delegates, all Republicans, represent constituencies that are from the farthest reaches of the Washington metro area, or even outside it completely. Their legislative priorities reflect a desire to ensure that people living in far-out areas can quickly drive around the region. They don't think that it's possible that making sure people closer to the region's core have more transit options could even benefit those driving from farther away.

This flies in stark contrast with NVTA, which functions well and tries to accommodate the needs of everyone. NVTA allows outer suburban jurisdictions to build the roads they want, while also allowing the more urban ones to focus on transit, cyclists, and pedestrians.

It's ironic that Republicans who emphasize small government would support something that takes away power from local governments. If you'd like Northern Virginia to have control over its transportation future, you can tell them here.


Will Montgomery fund new transit, or build more roads?

Maryland's gas tax increase means it now has the most transportation funding in a generation. Will Montgomery County spend its share on transit to support its urban centers, or keep building highways?

Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Coupled with existing revenues, the new gas tax has made $15 billion available for transportation, a 52% increase from last year and the most transportation funding in a generation. This month, the County Council will send the state a list of their transportation priorities in order to receive some of that money. As in past years, there are a number of road projects on the list.

But the Planning Board, noting the high cost of new highways and efforts to direct future growth to urban centers, urged the council to choose transit instead. Transit isn't "the answer to every transportation problem," they write, but "where roadway widenings to solve perennial traffic congestion would significantly affect existing communities, natural resources and parkland, a more efficient solution is needed."

Funding would give county's transit plans teeth

Not all of the projects on the list are likely to receive funding. But if they were, the county's transit network could expand dramatically.

Some projects already have the support of county and state officials, including the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway. Also included are funds for more 8-car trains on the Red Line, which will allow Metro to stop turning trains around at Silver Spring instead of running them to the end of the line at Glenmont.

There's also funding to build three of the county's proposed BRT lines along Georgia Avenue, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road, as well as studying future lines on Rockville Pike and New Hampshire Avenue. A proposed HOV lane on I-270 could eventually support transit between White Flint and Tysons Corner. Planners also recommend funding new sidewalks and bike paths along Georgia Avenue between Forest Glen Road and 16th Street, which the State Highway Administration is currently studying, and a pedestrian underpass at the Forest Glen Metro station.

These projects would serve the county's existing urban centers, like Silver Spring and Bethesda, by giving people alternatives to driving. And they would support the development of future ones like White Oak, where County Executive Ike Leggett envisions a research and technology hub.

Planners say transit would better serve growth areas

But many of the road projects in the priorities list could undermine those efforts, whether by directing funding away from transit or by encouraging more people to drive there.

The priorities list includes three interchanges along Route 29 in East County, at Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road, which have been in planning for decades and would cost $344 million. (Maryland has already set aside $7 million to design a fourth interchange at Fairland Road, estimated to cost $128 million to build.) Under the county's traffic tests, they have to be built before development in White Oak can happen.

County planners estimate that the three interchanges would cost the same to build as an 11-mile BRT line along the same corridor between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville. They say transit would not only better support the creation of a town center in White Oak, but give commuters from points north an alternative to driving, ultimately reducing local congestion.

"We believe that prioritizing the [Route 29] transit corridor improvements is the better choice," their report says.

Other road projects on the list include funds to build Montrose Parkway, a highway that would divide White Flint and Twinbrook. And there's a proposal to widen Norbeck Road between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road and build an interchange at Georgia, even though the road runs parallel to the underused Intercounty Connector a half-mile away.

Maryland's new transportation funds present a rare opportunity to the state and Montgomery County, its economic engine. Some road improvements may be necessary and beneficial, especially in the county's suburban areas. But the county's urban centers are where most of its future growth will happen, and they need transit to thrive. We have to make the right choice now, because we may not get it again for a long time.

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