The region’s inadequate transportation network is a topic for discussion in the legislative sessions in both Maryland and Virginia. Upgrading and maintaining the current system of roads, buses and rails is crucial for economic growth and quality of life. But it will take more than an acknowledgement of this fact for politicians in both states to act. They know that as much as residents of our region want to be rescued from gridlock and crowded mass transportation, no one wants to pay for the necessary fix.
Yet in next three years, Maryland’s state trust fund will lack adequate resources even to maintain the state’s existing infrastructure. Budget shortfalls put Baltimore’s planned Red Line and Montgomery County’s Purple Line in jeopardy. When public transportation is increasingly expensive or inadequate, it hurts everyone, but it hurts poorer residents disproportionately, as they struggle to travel to work or in search of jobs.
Last week, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) tried to jump-start discussion on transportation funding, and to push Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) into taking leadership of the issue. Two ways of raising funds were already on the table: an increase in the gasoline tax to be tied to inflation, and a hike in the sales tax. To this, Miller added the idea of leasing the new Intercounty Connector (ICC) to a private operator, along with other proposals.
In Virginia, Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) has proposed a transportation plan with $845 million in new money. To raise revenues, he favors eliminating the state’s gas tax and raising its sales tax.
One thing is clear: If our region is to be able to afford the transportation system we need and expect, we are going to have to pay higher taxes. Gasoline taxes, which have been falling relative to inflation, are the most progressive tax approach under consideration. They have the added benefit of taxing the users of area roads, including those who drive through from out of state. Lowering or eliminating the gasoline tax, on the other hand, could encourage more driving and more consumption. And, the lost tax revenues will have to be generated elsewhere.
We encourage thoughtful discussion of these issues in the legislature. It is up to our elected officials to figure out how to deliver the necessary transportation components that our region so desperately needs, and to find the right funding sources for them. The decisions regarding revenue sources – whatever they are – are not likely to be popular. But they are necessary. Our leaders need to lead on this issue, and they need to stay focused on keeping our transportation system responsive to the growing needs of our region.