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Why Higher Gas Taxes are the Right Medicine for Maryland

For years, we’ve been hearing from experts across the political spectrum about the need to invest more in our failing transportation infrastructure in Maryland. The D.C. region is at the top of the list of the most-congested cities in America, and Baltimore is not far behind. Almost half of Maryland’s roads and bridges are in poor or mediocre condition, and 55 percent of our urban highways are heavily congested. Maryland’s construction industry and its thousands of workers have been decimated by years of severe cuts in transportation investment. Despite what is clearly a growing need, Maryland’s transportation program is a shadow of its former self. Our failure to invest has cost us tens of thousands of jobs, and the price tag will only go up if we don’t reverse course.

This year, in his State of the State address, Gov. Martin O’Malley called on state legislators to add $613 million in dedicated transportation funding by applying the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline sales at the wholesale level. The governor’s diagnosis is correct: Our economy is slowly choking to death, and we know what medicine to take. The fact that it may not taste good going down is no reason to refuse treatment. Our region’s health suffered for years as we endlessly debated building the Intercounty Connector, a roadway that is now taking cars off the Beltway and giving motorists some relief. We need to take bold action once again.

The gas tax has not been raised in Maryland since 1992 and, because it is not indexed to inflation, it has lost roughly 60 percent of its value. Without a major increase in funds, we simply will not be able to keep pace with basic maintenance needs, let alone have anything left to deal with one of our biggest threats to future prosperity and quality of life.

O’Malley’s proposal would cost the average Maryland driver about $90 a year when fully implemented. This pales in comparison to what our region’s worsening congestion and poor road conditions cost each of us right now: Almost $2,300 a year in wasted gas and extra wear and tear, according to the Road Information Project. Such congestion costs disproportionately fall on the backs of working families and the poor. Nothing is more regressive than severe congestion, lost opportunity and job losses.

From a job-creation perspective, we are not just on life support, we are about to flat-line. Already, Maryland faces an uphill battle to lure companies’ headquarters, and Montgomery County has suffered a net loss of jobs in the face of stiff competition from Northern Virginia. Our job losses will continue to mount if employers can’t count on easy access to workers, customers and markets.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have studied our transportation needs for decades and know exactly what will ease our traffic woes. We simply need to make those investments.

Each year, local jurisdictions submit a list of their top transportation priorities to the state for construction funding. This year, two key transit projects top the list for Montgomery County: The Corridor Cities Transitway and the Purple Line, followed by a number of road and intersection improvements that would make a real difference in relieving traffic.

However, none of these projects will move forward — not now, not ever — without a major increase in transportation funding. Of course, we also must protect transportation funds from being “raided,” and the governor is supporting legislation to this effect. Finally, several major economic development projects — including new science and technology centers in the Interstate 270 corridor and community revitalization projects in the East County — cannot move forward without the specific transportation improvements the governor’s proposal would help fund. The opportunity costs in terms of our future employment and tax base would be almost too huge to measure, putting at risk our ability to support good schools and other priorities.

A good transportation system is just as important to our economy as a healthy circulatory system is to our bodies. Right now we have a bad case of clogged arteries. Maryland legislators need to step up and support this proven life-saving treatment now.

The writer, Montgomery County executive from 1994 to 2006, is chairman of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.

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