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Gas tax: Pay now or later

Over the past month, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline has increased 25 cents in Maryland. As far as anyone can tell, the motorists of this state received no particular benefit from the change in price — aside from a lighter wallet or purse.

Gasoline prices may rise higher yet, as they often do in the summer months when demand increases. Or, if the political tensions with Iran and its nuclear program dissipate, prices may actually go down as fear of supply interruptions diminishes. The marketplace is not always predictable, and there are a host of other factors that might intervene.

Yet Gov.Martin O'Malley's proposal to apply a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline phased in over three years (and delayed if retail gas prices rise precipitously), that would pump billions of dollars into local transportation construction projects to reduce congestion on the highways, promote jobs and economic development in this state, and provide public transit alternatives is getting little-to-no traction in the General Assembly so far this year.

Why? Clearly, people don't want to pay more at the pump no matter what. But the problem with this knee-jerk reaction is that not paying a bit more for gas now ensures only that consumers will be paying a lot more later — and not just at the local filling station.

Maryland needs to maintain decent roads and transportation infrastructure or its businesses and citizens suffer. From the Port of Baltimore toBaltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the highways, tunnels, bridges and rail networks, the state's economy depends on maintaining and expanding these vital connections to the rest of the country and the world.

The state has not raised the gas tax in two decades, and the alternative methods of funding transportation, the various fees and taxes applied mostly to vehicles and drivers, have been exhausted. What Mr. O'Malley has proposed would add about 6 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas this summer, or 18 cents in three years based on current prices.

No doubt some people find that prospect distasteful. Yet they should find the cost of doing nothing even more unappetizing. Just because it's more difficult to precisely calculate the cost of getting stuck in traffic — or unsafe roads or lost productivity or a reduced quality of life — doesn't make them any less burdensome than higher prices at the pump.

The public isn't always mindful of this, but lawmakers must be. To his credit, Governor O'Malley is undeterred and will appear before House and Senate committees on Wednesday to make his case for higher gasoline taxes. He will be joined by a host of business and labor leaders, elected officials including Baltimore MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake, and experts in transportation policy.

It would, of course, be easy for legislators to reject such an unpopular measure, but in doing so they would be doing their constituents no favor. There is always an excuse to avoid this necessity. When the economy is down, they don't want gas prices to make it worse. When the outlook is better, they don't want to slow down a recovery.

The Baltimore-Washington area already suffers from some of the longest commuting times in the nation. The public transit systems are in danger of failing if sufficient investments are not made soon. Keeping taxes at 1992 levels will slowly strangle commerce in this state — if not today then not long down that road of neglect and deprivation.

The motoring public's view of this is not entirely rational. Witness the blame heaped on President Barack Obama for oil prices that are beyond a nation's (let alone a president's) control. Never mind that Maryland's 23.5-cent gasoline tax represents less than one-fifteenth of the cost of a gallon and prices are set largely by global demand and supply.

The administration is clearly open to making the proposal more politically palatable — whether that means a constitutional amendment to protect the Transportation Trust Fund from being tapped to finance state general fund deficits, phasing it in over a longer period, deferring its start until 2013, and on. The governor has already proposed a delay in the increase should prices rise 15 percent or more, and aides say he's willing to make this "circuit breaker" stricter still.

Reluctant lawmakers ought to be willing to meet him at least halfway. Otherwise, they had better be prepared to explain to voters why traffic is gridlocked, economic engines like Montgomery County's I-270 corridor are at risk, and convenient access to trains, planes, and buses is drying up — along with the economic vitality of the state.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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