- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — A Maryland commission will likely recommend that the General Assembly gradually increase the state’s gas tax to help pay for transportation projects and road maintenance, its chairman said Tuesday.

Members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding tentatively agreed on a plan that would generate more than $800 million in annual transportation revenue by raising the state’s 23.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax and hiking several vehicle and transit fees.

More than half the revenue would come from raising the gas tax by 5 cents for three consecutive years, bringing it to 38.5 cents a gallon. That rate would also be indexed, allowing for future increases due to inflation.

The state-appointed commission has been charged with recommending new funding sources to help restore the state’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund and pay for increased spending on roads and infrastructure.

Commission Chairman Gus Bauman said the group is expected to formally adopt its recommendations at its next meeting Oct. 25.

“We all knew this day was going to come, and we’re going to have to make tough decisions,” Mr. Bauman said, adding that the state’s need for more transportation funds likely exceeds $1 billion.

“The needs are above that, but it’s a good start.”

The commission considered several possible tax and fee increases before settling on a handful it could approve.

Its tentative recommendations include the phased gas-tax increase, increasing Maryland Transit Administration public transit fares, raising the 6-percent titling tax to 6.5 percent, doubling the $14 fee for emissions inspections and raising vehicle registration fees by 50 percent — from $50.50 to $75.75 for most vehicles and $76.50 to $114.75 for heavier vehicles.

The commission eliminated several options that were not directly related to transportation, including increasing the state sales tax or real property taxes.

Its recommended increases are designed to help pay for infrastructure improvements, restore $350 million in annual highway-user funding to local governments and stabilize a Transportation Trust Fund from which the state borrowed more than $2 billion for nontransportation use in the past three years.

Along with tax and fee increases, the group will also recommend that the Democrat-controlled General Assembly pass an amendment to the state constitution that would tighten restrictions of when legislators could transfer funds from the trust fund for nontransportation purposes.

“That would be a detailed mechanism with requirements of sorts,” said commission member and Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat. “We can’t predict the economic situation down the road, but there are difficult decisions that are going to happen.”

Commission members did not estimate when the assembly could approve any of its recommendations or proposed increases, and Mr. Bauman acknowledged the process could take “several years.”

The assembly is unlikely to consider any tax increases during its special redistricting session beginning Monday.

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Edward J. Kasemeyer, Baltimore County Democrat, said last month that legislators might be too busy with an expected $1 billion budget shortfall during next year’s regular session to consider any such increases.

“These things don’t happen in one year,” Mr. Bauman said. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

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