By Megan Poinski

gas pump

Photo by Brian Herzog.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding is recommending that the General Assembly increase wholesale gas taxes by 15 cents, prevent money from the transportation trust fund from being siphoned off to other projects, and do a feasibility study on establishing a regional transit authority.

The 28-member commission reached the recommendations by consensus at its final meeting Tuesday.  They were essentially the same as what they had agreed to at meetings earlier this month, and are meant to raise about $870 million in new funds for transportation.

The commission’s report to Gov. Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly will give specific recommendations to raise sustainable transportation funding and continue to finance county and municipal transportation projects.

Chairman Gus Bauman said that he believed the report and its recommendations are “strongly composed,” and will force a conversation about transportation funds.

“It has to be something real and specific, and not a bowl of mush, so they have to react to it,” Bauman said about the report. “…If we can force a reaction, we have achieved half our goal.”

Funding recommendations

The commission proposed:

  • A total 15-cent gas tax increase, phased in over three years. At the end of the phase-in, the increase would bring in $491 million annually.
  • A 50% increase in vehicle registration fees, which would raise $165 million a year.
  • Increasing the titling tax rate from 6% to 6.5%. This would bring in $69 million a year.
  • Doubling the fee for emissions testing from $14 to $28. This would raise $22 million a year.
  • Increasing miscellaneous MVA fees, which would bring in $34 million annually.
  • Increasing MTA fares and ending funding of free rides out of the transportation trust fund. This would earn $25 million a year.
  • Indexing gas tax increases to inflation after three years, so the new funds keep pace with the economy.

Bauman said that the recommendations were crafted in order to hit everyone using transportation. While no votes were taken, Bauman said he knew some members of the commission were not happy with all of the recommendations – and that was OK.

“Our plan is to make everyone a little upset, not to make one or two people extremely upset,” he said. “That’s the goal here: something that can be swallowed.”

Del. Tawanna Gaines, who chairs the House of Delegates subcommittee on transportation spending, said it is important that people know that the recommended gas tax increase is on the wholesale price, not what people pay at the pump. Because gas prices fluctuate based on several conditions, she said it is unlikely that customers would actually see pump prices rise by 15 cents.

Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic, who sees pump prices influenced by different levels of gas taxes in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, said he thinks the gas tax would be passed through to consumers.

Mass transit authority study

The only new policy recommendation put in the report at Tuesday’s meeting advises that a study be done to determine the feasibility of a mass transit authority. This authority could have the power to levy taxes and undertake other initiatives to fund mass transit.

Anderson pointed out that most of the revenue suggestions from the commission have a disproportionate impact on motorists. There are already mass transit systems needing more money in Baltimore and the Washington, D.C. suburbs, he said. Meanwhile, two new transit projects that recently got federal approval will most likely need millions of dollars in new state funding to go forward.

“There is not enough money in motorists’ pockets to pay for the mass transit system that we want,” Anderson said.

Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald Fry suggested that a study be done to look at forming a mass transit authority to work on this.

Alvin Nichols, who is also a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board, said that WMATA is also considering a regional authority. Nichols said it would be a good time for Maryland to consider it as well.

Trust in the trust fund

Bauman and other commission members have long said that the keystone to the recommendations is ensuring that money earmarked for transportation is actually used there. Money in the state’s transportation trust fund is often taken for other uses. Bauman said he believes Marylanders are capable of accepting tax and fee increases.

“The quid pro quo is all of the money will come back and be used on transportation in Maryland,” he said.

Legislative attempts to protect the transportation trust fund have been unsuccessful. During this year’s legislative session, Sen. Robert Garagiola proposed legislation for a constitutional amendment to protect transportation trust dollars. It died in committee. A new budget requirement did pass that all funds taken from transportation must be repaid in five years.

Gaines said that she can see the General Assembly taking many of the commission’s recommendations seriously, but that the transportation trust fund protection will be a “pretty sticky” issue.