Last year, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding recommended raising $810 million by jacking up the state's current 23.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 15 cents. Although strongly backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democrat majority in the General Assembly wisely concluded that with gas prices already sky-high, a 38.5-cent gas tax would be political suicide for them.
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner apparently didn't get the memo. He wants the same lawmakers who rejected a statewide gas tax hike to allow the county to impose its own gas tax to pay for transit projects like the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway.
In "Rethinking Maryland's Proposed Gas Tax Increase," published earlier this year by the Rockville-based Maryland Public Policy Institute, transportation experts Wendell Cox and Ron Utt showed that Maryland is already spending 54 percent of all available transportation revenue on mass transit -- which serves less than 10 percent of daily commuters. Since 2003, transit's share of Maryland's capital and operating funds increased 24 percent, even though it accounts for only 4 percent of all statewide travel.
This planned misallocation of funds -- away from highway and road projects to transit -- is the real reason it keeps getting harder to get around. A gas tax at the county level will only make matters worse, diverting even more money from the productive private sector. And because gas taxes are regressive, lowest-income Montgomery residents would pay disproportionately more than their wealthier counterparts.
Maryland's current gas tax is identical to D.C.'s and slightly higher than the 19.8-cent state tax charged in Virginia. If Montgomery County added its own gas tax on top of that, it would increase motorists' incentive to fill up their tanks in neighboring jurisdictions.
A county gas tax would also perpetuate state lawmakers' tendency to divert transportation funds to other priorities when revenue doesn't keep pace with their voracious appetite for more spending. The state should not be allowed to offload its responsibility for fixing roads and bridges onto the backs of Montgomery County taxpayers.
"Absent any meaningful reforms to the system ... an increase in [gas] taxes will simply waste more money on existing spending options that have failed to address worsening congestion," Cox and Utt argue. At the state or county level, that's still a very bad idea.