Are car toll hikes coming?

A legislatively mandated transportation revenue report released this month recommends options for the Maryland General Assembly, including “a new registration fee for electric and/or plug-in hybrid vehicles or an increase in registration fees for all drivers.”

“The Maryland driver needs to take a hard look at the steps we’re taking,” one member of the Maryland Transportation Revenue and Infrastructure Needs Commission said in an interview after the interim report was released.

The state Legislature is scheduled to convene Wednesday for its scheduled 90-day session, and two state senators have indicated that adjustments may be made based on a half-dozen preliminary committee recommendations. The committee’s final report is due on or before Jan. 1, 2025, but action on transportation revenue affecting Marylanders’ wallets could be taken this legislative session.

Senate Minority Leader Says ‘The Time Is Right’

“I think the timing is right that we’re going to see some movement on (electric vehicle owners) paying their fair share,” said state Sen. Steve Hershey, R-Caroline/Cecil/Kent and Queen Anne’s, the Senate minority leader and the committee’s only elected Republican member, in a Jan. 4 phone interview.

The report points to a scenario with a $200 registration fee for electric vehicles and hybrids that could potentially contribute $40 million in revenue in fiscal 2025. It currently costs somewhere between $135 and $187 to register most vehicles for two years, depending from the weight of the vehicle.

(A Motor Vehicle Administration estimate cited in the report indicated that a $220 electric vehicle registration fee would be an “exact proxy” for the average annual gas tax payments made by a non-electric vehicle owner in Maryland. )

After a plan for the state’s transportation projects for fiscal years 2024-2029 by the Maryland Department of Transportation showed a $2 billion shortfall last year, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s/Anne Arundel called the commission’s recommendations, such as the call for a “balanced design” plan, “good recommendations and I think the administration can do it without legislative action.”

Asked if (Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s) administration would be able to raise the fee for (owners of) electric vehicles without legislative approval, Rosapepe said, “If we need legislative action, I’m sure we’ll take it up.”

More ▼: While the Moore administration is racing ahead with clean cars, the state is far behind the mark

The high task of the commission: to compensate for the deficiency of the project

Jim Kercheval, a commission member who in a Jan. 4 phone interview urged Maryland drivers to pay attention to body work, said the electric vehicle tax “replaces a small portion, but not all” of the money needed to close the deficit of the transport project.

Greater Hagerstown Committee executive director and former Washington County Commissioner Kercheval described a system that has been in place “for decades” in which road users pay into the Transportation Trust Fund through license fees and a gas tax in proportion to how much they use.

“The challenge is: As cars become more fuel-efficient, he said, the gas tax (revenue) has been steadily declining.”

Rosapepe, a Democrat, asked the question this way in a Jan. 4 phone interview: “How do you make the numbers work over the long term to make the investments (we) need in transportation?”

One commission recommendation calls for adjusting out-of-state tolls to maximize toll revenue to support projects in Maryland’s broader transportation system.

Hershey, a Republican, questioned the constitutionality of that recommendation based on the Commerce Clause.

More ▼: Funds transferred by MD for roads that received funds from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Act

How do we fairly fund mass transit systems?

With two metro transit systems receiving state funding, Hershey expressed his disappointment with the committee’s performance on Maryland’s mass transit systems during the four-month period the group met late last year.

“We had to take a deeper look at what I think is really draining the Transportation Trust Fund,” Hershey said, referring to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority and Baltimore-area mass transit.

Earlier this year, Moore announced plans to invest in east-west transit in the Baltimore region, which for years has been rated below average by area advocates.

As for the subway rail system currently operating in the D.C. suburbs, Maryland contributed more than $400 million in grants last year to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority. In November, rail journeys were around 55% of pre-pandemic weekday levels, according to Authority figures.

“I have growing concerns that we’re adding more transit projects that have been proven to lose money,” said Kercheval, one of two unelected members of the commission representing rural areas. He also discussed potential changes to the scoring system used to rank transport projects, stating his opinion that road projects and public transport projects should be categorized differently.

Three of the six recommendations in the interim report relate to this prioritization process. The Maryland Department of Transportation said it intends to develop a system to “evaluate the project’s benefits in terms of achieving state transportation goals versus costs” in a release last month.

More ▼: As gas tax revenue dwindles, Maryland commission meets to find new revenue for roads

“…There is still much work to be done”

Rosapepe, whose northernmost part of the district is about halfway between D.C. and Baltimore, said there has been a shift in commuting patterns in recent years that needs to be taken into account.

“Washington’s subway system was designed to be an urban transit system with the assumption that most people would live in the suburbs,” Rosapepe said. “The role of transit for commuting and, frankly, the role of roads for commuting as well — just sort of suburbs to the central city — is obviously less than it was, and I think it will be less in the future.”

The four-term state senator, who said he has attended several committee meetings (although he is not one of the six elected officials), said the committee’s hearings so far have been “very substantive.” As for the report, he said: “It shows that there is still a lot of work to be done.”

More ▼: The Eastern Shore, Southern and Western Maryland attract residents leaving the metro

Dwight A. Weingarten is an investigative reporter covering the Maryland State House and state issues. You can find him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DwightWeingart2.

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