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Two local lawmakers supporting roads plan

March 14, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Support is building among Washington County lawmakers for Gov. Robert Ehrlich's plan to raise money for transportation projects, which likely will come up for a vote in the Maryland House of Delegates this week.

The core of the plan would increase the cost of two-year vehicle registrations. Car registrations would increase from $81 to $128 and passenger truck registrations would increase from $108 to $180.

Local lawmakers said the state desperately needs money for transportation and Ehrlich's plan is preferable to a gas tax increase, which would be more detrimental to people in rural areas who drive greater distances.

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Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. and Del. Robert A. McKee both said they are willing to back the plan when it comes up for a vote in the Ways and Means Committee as soon as Monday.

Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, said he generally prefers user fees to taxes.

"Fees are an opportunity for us to choose. We can choose to have one or two vehicles," he said.

McKee, R-Washington, said he already has calculated that he would pay less under the Ehrlich plan than with a gas tax increase.

He said he appreciates the fact that the administration has promised to spend the money on roads and bridges, which he feels have been neglected in favor of mass transportation projects under the previous administration.

The state recently gave local transportation officials permission to design improvements to Dual Highway in Hagerstown, Washington County Director of Public Works Gary Rohrer said.

Without an extra lane in each direction and major intersection improvements, the highway won't be able to handle traffic in as few as four years, a recent study showed.

Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan said the extra money is needed to pay for that, as well as previous commitments such as the runway extension project at Hagerstown Regional Airport.

Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, said lawmakers can't complain about the lack of money for local road projects and vote against a way to pay for them.

"Even though I'm not in favor of fee increases, I understand the needs are not addressed," he said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he also expects to vote for the transportation plan when it reaches the House floor.

"I'll be supporting the governor's initiative. As a Republican from a rural area, I'm pleased the governor did not introduce a gas tax," Shank said.

Shank noted the vehicle registration fee has not increased since 1987.

A surcharge that goes to the emergency medical system, however, has been raised several times in recent years.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he hasn't made up his mind on the plan, but he understands the need to find money for transportation.

"People want the roads plowed in the wintertime and they want the potholes filled on the interstate," he said. "People deserve a top-notch transportation system in the state."

While Washington County lawmakers largely are on board with the plan, House Speaker Michael E. Busch predicted the plan will be a tough sell with Democrats who hold the majority in the chamber.

"They're not standing in line to vote for this. It's a very regressive tax," said Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

People who don't drive much will be hurt by the large increase, he said.

Most Democrats would rather see a gas tax increase, which would spread the costs more fairly and allow out-of-state travelers passing through help pay for road projects, he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he also prefers a gas tax, but he vowed not to make the transportation plan a partisan issue.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he refuses to vote for the fee increase.

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, and Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, have yet to make up their minds.

Munson said he wants to have a better idea of what Washington County will get if the transportation package passes before he makes a commitment.

"I think a lot of this stuff involving fees is still very much in flux," Munson said. "How it's going to fall out, Lord knows, and he's not talking."

In all, Ehrlich's plan would raise about $200 million per year for transportation.

In addition to the vehicle registration fee increase, which would raise about $148 million, the governor also has proposed:

  • Adding a $200 fine for those convicted of driving under the influence.

  • Adding a $50 fine to other moving violations.

  • Putting all rental vehicle tax money into the Transportation Trust Fund. Right now, 45 percent goes into the fund.

  • Increasing the cap on transportation borrowing from $1.5 billion to $2 billion.
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