Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Would you give away your money if you had little idea where it was going? Probably not. But that is what could happen to Maryland residents if the General Assembly passes a gas tax bill that doesn’t give us a better plan for how our transportation dollars are spent.

Right now, Governor O’Malley is working on a bill to levy a 6% sales tax on gasoline, adding about 18¢ to the current 23½¢ gas tax at current prices. He says the revenue will go toward transportation, but that could mean a lot of things, including the same bad priorities that created the traffic we have today.

The Maryland Department of Transportation cites billions of dollars in spending priorities from the counties as a key reason to raise the gas tax. But those priorities are often costly road expansions that can cost billions of dollars, compete with transit or pedestrian and bicycle facilities for funding, and do more harm than good for the goal of creating more walkable places and better transportation choices.

For example, in Montgomery County, the state will build a $63 million interchange at Georgia Avenue (MD 97) and Randolph Road, to speed up traffic near the Glenmont Metro station. With ramps and longer crossings, the interchange will further degrade pedestrian access to nearby shopping from residences.

For the amount spent on this project, the county could build much of the long-discussed Georgia Avenue bus rapid transit project from Wheaton to Olney instead.

Montgomery County is pushing another grade-separated interchange at the Veirs Mill Road (MD 586) and Randolph Road. Based on past experience, we can expect that the planned Veirs Mill bus rapid transit project (the county’s largest bus route) will continue to lose out to the expensive interchange for priority.

The interchange would not only compete for funds with this proposed rapid bus corridor, it would also make conditions much worse for the many pedestrians who cross these roads to stores and bus stops at the intersection. Read the whole list of the county’s priority transportation projects here.

In Prince George’s, despite numerous setbacks, the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia development project outside the Capital Beltway and miles from the nearest Metro station still maintains a top ranking on the list from local elected officials. The price tag for the road infrastructure to serve this massive tract of largely undeveloped land is $460 million.

The transportation projects would convert Pennsylvania Avenue (MD 4) into a freeway from the Capitol Beltway to Woodyard Road (MD 223), and add 4 interchanges along the way. The Westphalia plan calls for adding 14,000-15,300 new residential units and up 6 million square feet of commercial space.

The county transportation lists also contain important transit, bike, and pedestrian projects, but often these proposals languish while road projects advance. Other important transit, pedestrian, bicycle, and complete streets solutions never even make the list. We need to fund projects that meet the growing demand for more transportation choices that save time, energy, and money.

If Marylanders are asked to pay more, each dollar must be invested wisely. Residents need better and more affordable transportation choices. So where should this money go?

First, let’s fix Maryland’s existing infrastructure, like our aging roads, bridges and transit systems. Then, let’s build modern transit to move more people efficiently and competitively, while providing alternatives to congested highways like the Beltway, I-95, and I-270. It’s long past time for critical rail investments like the Purple Line, Baltimore Red Line and MARC expansion, and better bus service.

At the local level, state revenue to local governments should go to fix and maintain local street connections, sidewalks, and bikeways for existing communities.

Moreover, given high unemployment, smart growth transit options can help the economy. Public transportation and road maintenance are the biggest job creators. According to the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, investments in road maintenance projects create 9% more jobs than spending on new highway capacity; increasing transit capacity creates 19% more jobs than new highway capacity.

If Marylanders are going to pay more, we deserve to know what the money will buy. We need a bill that that specifies smart, fix-it-first policies for the state. Otherwise, we’re just throwing our money into the dark.