Slots vs. Gas Tax; ICC vs. Purple Line
But despite the governor's acknowledgment that Maryland needs billions of dollars of new transportation infrastructure to deal with the ever-more clogged roads, O'Malley couldn't quite bring himself to jack up the gas tax--the single tax increase that business and environmental groups agree would make a difference in attacking the state's transportation problem.
O'Malley came into office with lots of talk about pushing forward on both roads and transit--his would be a more balanced approach than his predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, used, the new governor said. But O'Malley's proposed budget creates no new movement on the Purple Line, the proposed east-west Metro connection between Bethesda and New Carrollton. And yet O'Malley shows no sign of retreating from the Inter-County Connector, the multi-billion dollar extravagance that will pave a new path from I-270 in Montgomery County to I-95 in Prince George's County.
Support for the ICC, never exactly overwhelming, seems to be waning as commuters realize that even the state's own studies show the highway would do little if anything to relieve congestion on the Beltway. The Prince George's County Council voted unanimously last week to protest the state's continued push for the highway, which county officials believe will act as a vacuum tube sucking jobs out of Prince George's and funneling residents of the county over to Montgomery.
A federal court in Greenbelt today hears opening arguments in a lawsuit seeking to stop the ICC construction before the road becomes a fait accompli. The suit, filed by residents and environmental groups, argues that the state "failed to consider the reasonable alternatives that would better address traffic problems and cost less, while protecting public health and the region's parks and natural resources. Plaintiffs also will argue that the proposed ICC would dramatically increase traffic and air pollution in the region," according to a release from Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, and the Audubon Society.
Prince George's officials are fighting hard against the road in large part because they would far prefer to see limited transportation dollars used to create the infrastructure needed to lure jobs and shopping opportunities to the county's existing Metro stations and other hubs.
The Purple Line, they say, would do far more to boost the county's economy than a road that would primarily move Prince George's residents to far-away jobs. And the way to jump-start the Purple Line project, according to both green and business groups, is to raise the gas tax.
"If not now, when?" asks a Baltimore Sun editorial endorsing the positions of business groups in both Washington and Baltimore supporting a 10-cent increase in the gas tax.
Is the O'Malley administration really that different on transportation from its predecessor? According to the governor, the big, important difference is that he is upfront with the people about the need to raise taxes rather than hide behind the illusion that slot machines alone can pay for what Maryland must do. What was wrong with Ehrlich's approach "was the holding up of slots as a replacement for the responsibility we have to keep our state strong," O'Malley says. "That's not good for our state or the future of the republic."
"Our plan is not cotton candy that tells you there's no pain for any of us," he continues.
Sounds right--and the ultimate way to assure that everyone understands that there are no free solutions to the traffic mess is to let voters see the true costs of congestion. Raising the gas tax would help boost the economy, steer resources toward transit improvements that could stem the rate of growth of road congestion, make necessary road improvements, and create a more honest financial relationship between commuters and the transportation infrastructure.
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