Josh Kurtz: Paying the Fare

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If Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), a conservative who fancies himself a possible presidential contender some day, can find $3 billion to fund 900 road projects over the next three years, then surely Maryland can begin to address its cash shortfall for transportation and infrastructure – now.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) proposed budget drains $100 million from the state’s transportation trust fund, which is already hurting. But legislators are responding.

State Sen. Rob Garagiola (D) has introduced a package to protect and boost funding for transportation projects. The measure includes raising the 23.5-cents-per-gallon state gasoline tax by 8 or 10 cents, increasing motor vehicle registration fees by 50 percent, and calling for a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment to keep the trust fund money in the trust fund. Sen. Roger Manno (D) this week is dropping a bill that essentially creates a separate sales tax for gasoline purchases. Other proposals are sure to follow.

The state gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1992 – that’s three gubernatorial and three presidential administrations ago. But is there an appetite in Annapolis to raise the gas tax with the economy still sputtering and prices at the pump spiking?

There ought to be. A study released last week by a Washington, D.C.-based group called The Road Information Program that found that 44 percent of Maryland’s roads need repairs, and that one-fifth of all the state’s bridges are in substandard condition, should serve as a screaming wake-up call to state policymakers. Not that another study should have been needed.

And that’s not even talking about mass transit. Maryland’s bus and train service could use a major upgrade – especially if officials are going to do more than just give lip service to the concept of transit-oriented development and the idea of getting more people out of their cars.

Washington’s Metro system is a disaster – and continues to be hamstrung by management problems and a lack of steady, reliable funding sources. And in a typical sign of Maryland’s regional conflicts, three big-ticket transit projects in the state are simultaneously vying for federal funding: the Purple Line, linking Bethesda to New Carrollton; the Corridor Cities Transitway in northern Montgomery County; and Baltimore’s Red Line.

The fact that state officials have yet to really prioritize among these three projects is a problem where the feds are concerned. Some Purple Line advocates are advancing the argument that because the proposed east-west rail line is in a “federal enclave” and is likely to move thousands of federal employees every day, it should become the top priority – not just in the state and region, but nationwide. Will the feds bite? Don’t bet on it.

In fact, anyone expecting major federal help on the transportation front any time soon has another think coming. Sure, Congress is due to reauthorize the nation’s long-term transportation spending plan this session – but that was also supposed to happen in the last Congress. In the interim, advocates of greater transportation spending have lost their No. 1 advocate on Capitol Hill: veteran Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was a victim of the tea party uprising in November.

The new chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), shares many of Oberstar’s priorities, but with Republicans firmly in control of the House, he’ll have to tighten the reins on spending – and watch his back – if he is to remain in charge. No one’s going to want to raise the federal gas tax either – even though that too is overdue.

And even though most of the developed world has far surpassed the U.S. when it comes to maintaining and improving infrastructure and accommodating the transportation of the future, like high-speed rail, Congress and the Obama administration don’t seem to have the political will or the intellectual bandwidth to consider innovative transportation funding solutions, like a tax based on vehicle miles traveled or the establishment of a federal infrastructure bank. So plainly it will be up to the states to chart their own course on transportation funding.

O’Malley rightly makes promoting Maryland’s high tech and green economies a major priority of his administration. But all the cutting edge technology in the world won’t cure what ails the state’s economy and prepare us for the future if we can’t move our people and goods safely, efficiently, affordably and in an environmentally-friendly way.

Maryland has had plenty of opportunities to raise the gas tax through the years, and officials could never muster the political courage – even early in former Gov. Parris Glendening’s (D) second term, when gas prices briefly dipped below a dollar a gallon. Today regular is well above $3 a gallon – but the problems remain. It’s time for real political leadership. Raise the gas tax now.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described Sen. Roger Manno as a delegate. The column has been updated to reflect the correction.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Republican Rising Stars

Only 2,114 Days Till Election Day 2016

An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

Maryland's Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney...

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.