- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2007

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — At a time when lawmakers are faced with a colossal budget deficit, Transportation Secretary John Porcari testified yesterday that Maryland needs a steady revenue source to maintain aging bridges and take care of other transportation needs.

At a joint hearing of senators and delegates, Mr. Porcari pushed for several transportation-connected tax increases proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley to raise $400 million annually.

Mr. Porcari said transportation infrastructure is increasingly burdened by growth and long financial neglect, leaving the state with $40 billion in unmet transportation needs.

“To chip away at that $40 billion of needs statewide, we need to invest at least, and I emphasize at the minimum, an additional $400 million per year,” Mr. Porcari said.

Mr. Porcari pointed out that the state faces major rehabilitation projects in coming years for older bridges, all built in the same era, that will need work at the same time.

Mr. O’Malley is pushing for several tax increases to fund the transportation segment of his sweeping tax plan. They include an increase in the vehicle titling tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, raising the gas tax to adjust for inflation’s impact on materials needed for transportation projects, directing all of a tax on rental car sales to transportation needs instead of 45 percent, and a corporate income tax increase from 7 percent to 8 percent.

Indexing the gas tax involves raising it by half a cent starting Jan. 1. The measure would continue to make inflationary adjustments at the start of each year. Maryland’s 23.5 cent gas tax has not been raised since 1993.

Republicans, many of whom represent rural parts of the state, spoke out against the plan, saying it does nothing to address the state’s $1.7 billion budget deficit and unfairly taxes people who live in rural areas that don’t need new transportation projects as much as urban areas.

“Main Street does not want their gas tax increased,” said Sen. Allan Kittleman, Howard Republican.

Mr. Porcari said the state has fallen behind on transportation expenses because of population growth, rising expenses to maintain roads and aging infrastructure.

Since the gas tax was last raised, Mr. Porcari said vehicle mileage of travel has gone up 31 percent on Maryland roads, traffic on the Bay Bridge has shot up 43 percent and the number of passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has more than doubled from 10 million to 21 million a year.

Mr. Porcari also pointed out that federal money for transportation projects that the state has relied on in the past is drying up, threatening to “cripple our capital program.”

“So, we have both a state and a federal transportation funding crisis,” Mr. Porcari said.

Sen. James DeGrange, Anne Arundel Democrat, asked Mr. Porcari whether $400 million would be enough to begin addressing the backlog of transportation projects. Mr. DeGrange cited business organizations that have expressed support for as much as $600 million annually in transportation money for the state.

Mr. Porcari said about $250 million of the $400 million being proposed would go toward preserving infrastructure, which would not leave a lot for new projects.

“If you expect any significant progress on our part to get into the backlog of projects, we would have to go beyond $400 million, and the governor has previously indicated his flexibility in working with the General Assembly on that,” Mr. Porcari said.

When asked by Mr. DeGrange how additional funds could be raised, Mr. Porcari said a gas tax would be one of the primary ways.

“There are other directly transportation-related funds that would be possibilities as well,” he said.

The Maryland Automobile Dealers Association expressed concern about the titling tax proposal, because of a tough economic environment for car dealers. The association proposed initiating a trade difference into the tax increase that would tax the difference between the sales price and a customer’s trade-in.

James Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, called for raising the gas tax in order to help raise $600 million annually in new transportation funding.

“Right now, Maryland’s gas tax is one penny below the national average, while the funding needs are growing well ahead of other states,” Mr. Dinegar said. “Without at least indexing the gas tax, we must rely on the legislature to revisit this painful discussion too often — usually without seeing any new revenue.

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