By MALI KRANTZ
ANNAPOLIS (March 14, 2012)—Gov. Martin O'Malley defended his proposed six percent sales tax on gasoline before House and Senate committees Wednesday, saying Maryland needs to address crumbling transportation infrastructure and crippling traffic congestion.
"As a state, we now have the longest daily commute in the country," O'Malley told a joint Ways and Means and Environmental Matters committee hearing. He also testified before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
Maryland currently charges a 23.5-cent per gallon flat tax on gasoline sales, a tax that hasn't changed since 1992.
The tax is the 29th highest for gas in the country. The proposed legislation would push Maryland to the 6th highest.
The revenue would be funneled into the Transportation Trust Fund, charged with maintaining Maryland's roads, bridges and the state's portions of the Metro system.
Infrastructure projects that address safety, congestion and job creation have all been put on hold because Maryland lacks funds devoted to transportation, gas tax supporters said.
The tax would be phased in at 2 percent each year for three years. At its full 6 percent, it is slated to raise $613 million per year.
According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, the top construction priorities for each county and Baltimore would cost $12 billion to complete.
"There's a huge backlog of projects that have been idling," said O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. "There's a whole slew of what's needed ... we need to find a way to fund these projects that is sustainable."
O'Malley showed a willingness Wednesday to compromise on the gas tax as long as some other form of funding can be agreed upon, such as a 1 cent increase on the regular sales tax dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund.
"We can't keep kicking the can down the road on transportation projects," O'Malley said to the joint House committee hearing. "We don't want to look back at our crumbling roads and bridges ... Yes, we are all against taxes, but we pay for that too, and in this case, doing less will cost us more."
Some counties have had necessary projects backlogged for years because they can't get funding.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D- Calvert, has been fighting for a new bridge in Calvert County since he was elected in 1995.
The two-lane Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge crosses the Patuxent River, connecting Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
"The Department of Transportation decided years ago that the bridge wasn't safe, so if the bridge wasn't safe then, is it safe now?" he said. "You can't take safety for granted."
The bridge was closed for structural damage repairs in 1988, 11 years after its construction. After filling cracks in the bridge's foundation, the bridge was reopened.
In addition to safety concerns and daily congestion over the bridge, Calvert County is home to two nuclear reactors, with a third reactor in the works.
The division chief of the Emergency Management and Safety Division of Calvert County said people can feel very safe crossing the bridge.
"We have a very aggressive bridge inspection system that's biannual," he said. "That bridge is absolutely safe."
But Connie Stewart, manager of 3 Bea's Assisted Living in Lusby, where the reactors are located, worries about evacuating the county in a timely manner should there be an incident at the power plant.
"If we have to evacuate, I can't see using that bridge except as a last resort," she said.
In 2007, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed over the Mississippi River. Dyson is worried Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge could do the same if something isn't done soon.
The bridge is on O'Malley's list as the top priority project for Calvert County.
Donald C. Fry, president of The Greater Baltimore Committee sits on the Blue Ribbon Commission on
Maryland Transportation Funding and wants to see the gas tax money go toward needed projects.
"It should be projects that are identified that provide economic benefit and job creation, or help address congestion and of course, safety," Fry said.
John A. Andryszack testified against the bill on behalf of the Maryland Motorcoach Association.
"Our typical size motor coach company is 21 motor coaches," he said. We use 350,000 gallons of fuel each year ... if this goes up, we're not going to buy that amount of fuel in Maryland ... you're going to hurt our business and we're going to buy our fuel elsewhere."