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Lawmakers must see that gas tax revenue reaches county

April 11, 2013

The price of gas in Maryland, following a tax hike in the General Assembly, is on target to increase by 4 cents in July, with a series of percentage hikes to follow, lasting through the year 2016 — not to mention a permanent tie to inflation.

All told, gas likely will cost 20 more cents a gallon by the time the hikes are phased in over the next three years.

It goes without saying that rural Marylanders who do the most driving will pay a higher percentage of the new tax, at least on a per-capita basis. But it won’t be rural Marylanders who see the bulk of the benefit. That prize will go to people who buy the least amount of gas of all — those who use mass transit.

We fully understand that mass transit is a worthy goal for a number of reasons, including the positive effect on the environment, and we do not begrudge subway projects their share of the pot. But we would ask our local lawmakers to see that our needs are met as well.

Specifically, we would ask the delegation to jumpstart the stalled progress on widening Interstate 81 between the West Virginia and Pennsylvania lines.

The Maryland State Highway Administration notes that heavy traffic and substandard intersections have “created merge and weave problems” that have “contributed to a number of crashes along the highway.”

Indeed, rare is the week that goes by without some accident-related tie-up that brings interstate traffic to a standstill. The interstate has also become the highway of choice for truck traffic on the Eastern Seaboard, contributing to a hair-raising ride during peak traffic times.

These are issues that the majority of lawmakers in Annapolis never see. So it’s up to our lawmakers to drive the point home and get this needed project moving.

The SHA has recommended widening the highway to six lanes (including the span over the Potomac River) and improving interchanges and collector roads along the way.

The study was completed in 2010, but no funding has been allocated for design, right-of-way purchases or construction.

It’s obvious the estimated $1 billion cost would have to be broken down into small projects and completed over time. But it’s equally obvious that if we do not start now, conditions and safety will deteriorate even further to the point that I-81 in Maryland will gain a reputation as a death trap.

Already, our neighboring states have seen the handwriting on the wall and are nibbling away at widening the highway to six lanes. That means that in the not-too-distant future, I-81 will be six lanes in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, narrowing to a four-lane bottleneck in the 12-mile stretch through Maryland.

That means that as bad as the traffic conditions are now, in another decade they stand to be exponentially worse.

We agree with a majority of our delegation that a gas tax is a burden to the people of rural Maryland. But if we have to pay, we believe it is the obligation of our lawmakers to ensure that we get a meaningful share of our own money.

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