Hearing on gas taxes draws hundreds to Annapolis

By Ilana Kowarski

Pumping gas in carGov. Martin O’Malley’s controversial proposal to increase gas taxes drew hundreds to a hearing at the House of Delegates Friday, and the hearing room became so crowded that citizens were advised to watch the proceedings remotely while they waited for their turn to testify.

The House Ways and Means Committee heard four hours of testimony about HB1515, a bill that would boost gas taxes and vehicle registration fees in order to raise revenue for Maryland’s transportation network.  If passed, the legislation would provide billions of dollars to maintain Maryland roads, bridges, and public transit and would fund the construction of new rail lines and highways.

Proponents and opponents of the legislation agree that Maryland desperately needs to improve its transportation system, since the state has the country’s most congested highways. But they disagree about how the state should pay for these improvements.  The fiercest criticism comes from those who believe it burdens drivers with the bulk of the state’s transportation bills while allocating most of that money to the transit system.

More funding goes to mass transit

Leif Dormsjo, deputy secretary of transportation, replied to the inequity charges by saying that highway projects received more federal matching dollars than local transit projects. Dormsjo said that this discrepancy at the federal level was the only reason that Maryland was spending more money on transit than roads. Nevertheless, those opposed to the governor’s transportation plan continued to argue that it was unfair to motorists, including Lon Anderson, the spokesman for AAA Atlantic.

“In a state spending more than twice as much on mass transit than it is on roads, requiring motorists to pay virtually all of the proposed new revenue is not something we as a motorists’ organization think is fair and can support,” Anderson said.

Advocates of the governor’s plan testified that it would will bring jobs, reduce road congestion, ease workers’ commutes, improve the state’s quality of life, and encourage people to do business in Maryland,  but opponents of the plan contested all of those arguments, and warned that a large gas tax increase could damage the state’s economy.

Truckers and gas station operators strongly objected to the governor’s plan, saying that it would hurt their businesses and force them to layoff employees.  Engineers and construction workers argued in favor of the legislation, saying it would revive their struggling industries.

Supporters say gas tax revenue vital for transportation projects

Some supporters of the governor’s gas tax proposal expressed concern that nitpicking would derail attempts to overhaul the state’s dilapidated transportation network. Before the hearing began, the Greater Baltimore Committee held a press conference along with a labor union and other business groups. All those organizations announced that they were strongly in favor of the governor’s bill and they urged Marylanders to accept the gas taxes as a necessary evil, to stop quibbling over details in the legislation, and to start mobilizing for transportation reform.

Don Fry, the president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said that Marylanders needed to stop complaining about the gas tax and should realize that this money is needed to pay for vital transportation projects.

“Oftentimes, the transportation network doesn’t get the attention it deserves until there is a crisis,” Fry said.  “We are at that crisis time today, and now is the time to act…  This is a situation where the perfect is the enemy of the good, and we need something good to move our state forward.”