A group of environmental and pro-transit organizations say they're all in favor of raising Maryland's 23.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax -- but only if their conditions are met.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth, 1,000 Friends of Maryland, Action Committee for Transit and other groups issued a joint news release Thursday in which they called on the General Assembly to agree to tighter controls on how any additional money is spent before raising more revenue.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends, said the groups' support for any gas tax increase is conditional on the legislature adopting measures to ensure that money is spent on projects that are not "business as usual."
The groups said the want to legislature to adopt spending guidelines to ensure that spending is directed to what Stuart Schwartz of the smart growth coalition called "fiscally, prudent, environmentally sustainable" projects.
Schwartz named the Baltimore Red Line and suburban Washington Purple Line -- both high-ticket light rail projects -- and an expanded MARC system as examples of spending the groups want the legislatures to commit to.
The groups were critical of any spending on new highway capacity, arguing that maintenance of existing roads should be the priority.
The environmentalists' position could divide them from some of the other potential members of a coalition in favor of raising transportation revenues. Local governments, for instance, are in many cases desperate for additional money to spend on roads but jealously guard their control of how it should be spent.
Other groups point to transit spending as one of the reasons they would oppose a gas tax increase and other transportation revenues. These groups, however, may have little influence with the lawmakers who are possible yes votes. The environmental and transit groups, on the other hand, have clout with the legislators who would likely form the core of any pro-tax coalition -- especially lawmakers from Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
A blue-ribbon commission recently recommended a 15-cent increase in the gas tax in three increments of a nickel, as well as increased vehicle registration fees. They pointed to what they called a deficit of at least $800 million in what it will take to keep up with the state's transportation needs.
But one of the members of that commission, Rob Etgen, said he was not part of the reported "consensus" by which the panel reached its recommendations. Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and a signatory to the news release, said the commission should have paid more attention to how transportation is spent instead of concentrating on raising revenue.
Etgen said he favors transit spending, but is more concerned about stopping highway expansion or a third Bay Bridge than about Western Shore matters such as the two transit lines.
The differences among the environmental groups illustrate the difficulty of assembling a coalition to back any transportation revenue increase.
Several leading business groups say they support a tax increase -- but only if their own key condition is met: an ironclad guarantee that transportation revenue will no longer be used to plug holes in the general fund budget.
Proponents face an uphill battle when so many of them are offering only conditional support. Opponents of any increase have no such reservations. They just want to kill it.
Other groups joining in the news release include Prince George's Advocates for Community-Based Transit, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and the Red Line Now PAC.