If Maryland is going to raise significant new revenue to meet its backlog of transportation needs – most likely through a higher gas tax-- 2012 is the year it must be done, a leading lawmaker told a gathering of Baltimore business leaders Monday.
Speaking at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual transportation summit, State Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola warned that any political will that exists to raise money for highways, transit and other transportation needs will fall off the closer legislators get to the 2012 election.
"They’re going to be even more skittish as we get to 2013 and 2014," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Garagiola was one of several speakers who called for increased investment in transportation at both the state and federal level, warning that the United States and Maryland are falling behind in quality of infrastructure.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, the top Democrat on the House budget committee, warned that transportation advocates face a challenge in even maintaining the current level of federal contributions because of Republican resistance to spending for any purpose.
Van Hollen, who is one of 12 lawmakers appointed to the so-called "super-Congress" charged with making $1.5 trillion in federal budget cuts over the next decade, said the most important priority in the short term is not deficit reduction but "to get the economy going again and get people back to work."
With unemployment in the construction sector running at about 14 percent, he said, transportation infrastructure is a good place to start.
For two years Congress has been stalled in its attempts to pass a new six-year transportation reauthorization bill. Meanwhile, federal transportation programs – primarily in the form of aid to the states – has continued under a series of short-term extensions. The most recent allowed funding to continue for the next six months, but the House and Senate are moving in different directions on a longer-term bill.
In the House, the Republican majority has been crafting a proposal that would cut federal transportation by more than 30 percent from current levels by holding spending to the amount of revenue raised by the federal gas tax.
"That is a huge cut at a time when we have big infrastructure needs and huge unemployment in this sector, Van Hollen said. But he predicted that even some Republican members would balk at cuts of that magnitude.
"Something’s got to give in this process, and I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail," he said.
One of the key issues at the federal level, as well as in Annapolis, is the reluctance of lawmakers to vote for increases in the gas tax. The federal tax has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon, and Maryland’s at 23.5 cents a gallon, since the early 1990s. What was once a fairly routine vote every few years to raise the tax to keep up with inflation has become increasingly difficult as the Democratic and Republican parties have become increasingly polarized over fiscal issues.