Maryland: A Case Study in the Lack of Political Will to Fund Transportation

As national policymakers hunt for a sustainable way to raise more money for a more efficient, less polluting transportation system, raising the federal gas tax is often at the top of their list -- after all, the tax has remained stagnant since 1993, despite signs that its usefulness is eroding as American drivers choose more fuel-efficient cars.

andrews.pngMontgomery County Council President Phil Andrews (Photo: MoCo Council)

But political will, not fuel efficiency, is proving the most powerful deterrent to a gas tax hike. Members of Congress freely admit they lack the votes to pass one, the Obama administration has already ruled one out, and many state officials are equally resistant to asking voters to pay up-to-date prices for using local roads.

In Maryland, for example, local officials are acknowledging that transportation projects will stall without the extra money generated by raising the state gas tax, which has remained at 23.5 cents per gallon since 1992. From the front page of today's Washington Examiner:

Maryland is long overdue for an increase in the gas tax to help build new roads and ease congestion, Montgomery County Council President Phil Andrews said Monday. ...

Andrews' comments echo the sentiments of many elected officials in the District's suburbs, who said their constituents would be happy to pay an extra nickel or dime per gallon of gasoline if it meant spending less time sitting in some of the country's worst traffic.

The Examiner reports that the leaders of the Maryland and Virginia state Senates are on board for higher state gas taxes. But both states' governors are decidedly uninterested.

New Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell (R) credited his infrastructure policy with helping lead him to victory. As he summed it up in a weekend interview with CNN: "New money for transportation, while protecting education funding and not raising taxes."

And Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who is up for re-election next fall, sounded a similar note in the Examiner:

"It's certainly not something we're considering right now," said ... O'Malley's spokesman Shaun Adamec, who added that there was little "appetite or desire" to raise taxes in the current economic climate.

State legislators could be forced to change their approaches to the gas tax if more areas are unable to meet their requirement to match federal transportation aid; in fact, 15 states are already running out of matching funds. But in the meantime, raising taxes will continue to rank among politicians' least favorite solutions to the problem.