Area roads and bridges are crumbling, commuters are wasting hours sitting in traffic on congested highways, and legislators are at the end of their ropes in finding ways to generate new revenue. Despite gas prices topping $3 a gallon, some are still pondering whether now is finally the time for a gas tax increase. Maryland's 23.5 cents-a-gallon rate has not changed since 1992, and Virginia's 17.5-cents-a-gallon rate has remained in place since 1986, with proposals from lawmakers in both states to raise the taxes getting repeatedly shot down.

Maryland's Democratic leaders, though, are pushing hard to make it happen this year, and an economic consultant told the state's Senate Budget and Taxation Committee this week that increasing the gas tax should "absolutely" be on the table.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has previously tried to index the tax so that it rises and falls with inflation. Even if that happened, though, it still won't provide all the revenues the state needs for transportation projects, O'Malley said.

Highs and lows - States with highest and lowest gas taxes

The environmental case for a gas tax increase

Rank State Amount (cents per gallon)
1 California 47.7
2 New York 47.2
3 Hawaii 45.8
4 Connecticut 45.2
5 Illinois 42.8
27 D.C. 23.5
27 Maryland 23.5
41 Virginia* 19.7
47 Oklahoma 17
48 South Carolina 16.8
49 New Jersey 14.5
50 Wyoming 14
51 Alaska 8
*Includes 2.1 percent sales tax on motor fuels in localities that are part of the Northern Virginia Transportation District.
Source: American Petroleum Institute
It's no secret that Americans are addicted to oil -- and some say a gas tax increase could help push them toward a cure.
"Most of the countries in Europe have an anti-car policy ... they try to discourage driving by taxing gasoline so high," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Indeed, some proponents of a gas tax increase make the environmental pitch: With higher taxes, people would have an incentive to buy more fuel-efficient cars or take mass transit, reducing the amount of pollutants generated by cars.
"We need a system where drivers pay their own freight for ecological reasons and for national security [reasons] so we become less dependent on other countries for foreign oil," said Maryland transit advocate Ben Ross.

"If we are trying to build cars that burn less and less gasoline -- relying for all of our roads, bridges, tunnels and mass transit on a tax that is basically flat and based on a high rate of consumption -- then you are raising a tax on a dwindling source," he said.

Even across the Potomac in Virginia, where Gov. Bob McDonnell strongly opposes the notion of any tax increases, the governor acknowledged during a recent radio appearance that the gas tax hasn't been adjusted for inflation since 1986, and as more fuel-efficient cars are developed, gas use may decrease.

"That's a concern," he said. "It's just math ... you're going to continue to have less revenue and more demand for roads and more people driving, and so it's something that we're going to look at over the next year."

Raising Virginia's gas tax by a penny would generate $46.8 million a year in new revenue.

In the District last year, Councilman Jim Graham proposed increasing the 23.5-cent gas tax by 10 cents, with the additional revenue used to help pay the city's share of Metro. But the proposal would only take effect if Maryland and Virginia jurisdictions that help govern Metro enacted similar increases, and it went nowhere. D.C.'s gas tax did increase from 20 cents to 23.5 cents in 2009.

Proponents of increasing the gas tax describe it as the ultimate user fee, since only those using the roads pay it -- at least in theory.

"What you need to do is raise the gas tax and deal with all these bridges that are in trouble and pay for all the Metro lines we need," said Ben Ross with the Action Committee for Transit in Montgomery County.

The oil industry, though, argues that the current economic climate is not conducive to an increase and that there is no way to ensure that the additional tax revenues would actually be used for roads. Pete Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association, criticized Maryland for raiding its transportation trust fund to help balance the budget in recent years.

"It's not the time," he said. "Until there's some protection for that fund, now's not the time to increase taxes."