- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Maryland’s traffic congestion creates some of the nation’s worst commuting headaches.

Although congestion is worse in the densely populated parts of the state next to the nation’s capital and around Baltimore, long commutes are not limited to those areas. Now, state officials are making key decisions. A new Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have been contending over tolls, taxes and infrastructure priorities.

Here’s a look at congestion problems and actions taken to address them:

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LONG COMMUTES

Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the state’s largest jurisdictions next to the nation’s capital, have the worst traffic problems in Maryland. People who commute in the District of Columbia and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs spend an average of 34 minutes getting to work, according to an Associated Press review of the most recent U.S. Census data from 2013. Travel time to work in the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson area isn’t much better, about 31 minutes on average.

Commuters also face considerable travel time to work in western Maryland and in parts of the Eastern Shore. In the Hagerstown, Maryland,-Martinsburg, West Virginia, area, the average travel time to work is about 30 minutes. In the Salisbury area, including parts of Delaware, it takes an average of about 23 minutes to get to work, according to the census.

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ROADS AND BRIDGES

Roads and bridges will receive greater attention under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration. On Thursday, Hogan announced plans to invest nearly $2 billion in highways and bridges in the state, with $1.35 billion of that money going toward new projects.

“Everyone in the state relies on Maryland’s roads,” Hogan said. “We have a responsibility to the state as a whole, and with these projects we are investing in we are going to touch the daily lives of citizens all across our state.”

The priority projects will get under way by 2018.

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LIGHT RAIL

Hogan also announced Thursday that the state will move forward with a light rail project in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The proposed $2.45 billion Purple Line is a 16-mile light rail between Bethesda and New Carrollton. However, the state will only contribute $168 million to the project, instead of nearly $700 million. That means the counties will need to pay more to build it.

“The Purple Line is a long-term investment that will be an important economic driver for Maryland. It will be built in a part of our state that has demonstrated strong support and use of mass transit.”

Hogan also announced the state won’t move ahead with a separate light rail project in Baltimore. The $2.64 billion Red Line would have been a 14.1 mile east-west public transit line connecting Woodlawn in Baltimore County with downtown Baltimore.

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TOLLS GOING DOWN

Tolls are dropping across the state July 1. Hogan pushed for the reductions, saying toll hikes supported by his Democratic predecessor were a top concern of residents as he campaigned. Democrats question how the reduction will affect the state’s ability to pay for infrastructure needs. The toll cut is estimated to save drivers $54 million a year.

“When you think of how long people are stuck in traffic, not being productive, wasting gasoline, taking too much time to get home or to get to work or to move commerce on our highways, I mean, we’ve just got one long gridlock, so that’s my concern,” state Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat said at a hearing this month on the toll reductions.

Rahn says the reductions are affordable because of a combination of higher-than-expected revenues and efficiencies in operations.

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TAXES GOING UP

As tolls go down, a sales tax on Maryland gasoline is set to go up July 1. It will be the third time a 1 percent sales tax bump will be added to the state’s 23.5 cents per gallon tax on gasoline since then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, and lawmakers approved staggered increases over several years in 2013. The latest increase will create the equivalent of a 3 percent sales tax rate on a gallon.

The gas tax measure, which was the first approved in Maryland in two decades, also includes automatic increases in the future to adjust for the cost of inflation. Hogan sought to repeal the automatic increases in the legislative session that ended in April, but his proposal was a nonstarter in the Legislature.

Overall, the new 3 percent rate and inflationary adjustments so far will mean Maryland drivers will be paying about 8.6 cents a gallon more for gas July 1 due to the 2013 law, or a total tax of about 32.1 cents a gallon.

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ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Maryland’s traffic-choked roads are a concern to the state’s business community. A yearlong study released in February on creating a better business climate in Maryland recommended the state expedite plans to upgrade transportation infrastructure of all types in the Baltimore/Washington area. The Augustine Commission was assembled by the presiding officers of the Legislature. The commission was led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.

“Commute time is becoming an increasingly important consideration in decisions made by both individuals and corporations as to whether to locate in the state,” the report said.

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