Gas tax not keeping up with road needs

Federal and state motor fuel tax receipts — the billions that pay for road construction, repaving, maintenance and operations of highway and street departments — are not growing as fast as the cost of those projects. And that may mean more potholes and deteriorating roadways during the coming years.

A Dayton Daily News examination shows that the share Ohio counties get from the state gasoline tax have increased by 0.5 percent from 2006 to 2013. During the same period, the cost of paving 1 mile of road in Montgomery County has risen more than 71 percent. Of the $2.7 billion in revenue collected by the Ohio Department of Transportation, $1.8 billion comes from the state gas tax.

The problem, say county engineers, is that increasing numbers of people are driving more fuel efficient vehicles. That means that those vehicles get better gas mileage, and owners don’t have to buy as much gas. At the same time, wear and tear on roads have increased because more miles are being driven. ODOT estimates the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is projected to increase by 31 percent between 2008 and 2025, with the largest increase being truck VMT — a projected growth of 67 percent.

Since the late 1990s, the money that is generated to maintain roads — fuel tax receipts — have been flat. This during a time when a Brookings Institution study found that the number of vehicles and miles traveled have increased at a greater rate than gallons of fuel consumed. Add to the mix that some people are driving vehicles that use alternatives besides gasoline. Those alternative fuels are not subject to the gasoline tax.

“A lot of the new fuels — compressed natural gas, electric, biofuels — are not taxed,” Greene County Engineer Robert Geyer said. “In addition, the tax receipts are stagnant because of the increased (fuel efficiency).”

Current federal regulations call for manufacturers to produce cars and light trucks that average 35 miles per gallon by 2016.

In 2006, the state’s 88 counties each received $2,322,444.66 from the state fuel tax. The ODOT estimate for 2013 is $2,333,960. That is an increase of less than 0.5 percent.

“It used to be you expected a 2 percent to 3 percent increase in the fuel tax receipts,” Geyer said.

Rising costs

“Since 2005 asphalt prices have increased by 88 percent,” Miami County Engineer Paul Huelscamp said.

During the same period, the price of gas has increased by 62 percent.

“When the price of gasoline goes up, consumption goes down, plus the cost of our commodities, especially asphalt which is oil-based, goes up,” said Steve Faulkner, Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman.

From 2006 to 2013, the cost of paving 1 mile of an Montgomery County road 2o-feet wide increased from $38,669 to $66,197.

“We’ve just gone through an inventory of our roads, and it may be that rather than repaving we go to chip-and-seal,” Huelscamp said. Chip-and-seal is a layer of rock chips spread over a layer of oil. The weight of traffic eventually compresses chips into a solid surface.

“It’s about one-third the cost of resurfacing,” Huelscamp said. He added that chip-and-seal surfaces deteriorate quicker and lead to shortening of the life expectancy of the road bed.

“Rebuilding a road bed is triple or quadruple the cost of resurfacing,” Troy City Engineer Deb Swan said.

Warren County has cut back on their resurfacing as well, said Neil Tunison, Warren County engineer.

“We’re not resurfacing nearly as much as we would like,” Tunison said. “We were resurfacing roads on a 10-year cycle. But the way costs are now we’re on a 25-year cycle. Our roads are falling apart before we get to them.”

Clark County Engineer John Burr said the current system doesn’t add up.

“The math is not good,” he said. “It decreases the ability we have. The money just doesn’t go as far.”

Townships, villages and cities face identical challenges as counties.

During the budget crunches of the Great Recession, localities — faced with decreases in funds from the state and the rollback of many taxes — often slashed their road maintenance as a means of balancing their budgets. Now they are trying to play catchup.

“We are already struggling to maintain our streets. In the past five years, we went two without resurfacing,” Swan said.

Dayton used several million dollars from its general fund last year to jump-start its moribund street resurfacing.

“We did around 60 lane miles last year,” said Steve Finke, assistant public works director. He estimated the city needed to pave 78 lane miles in the foreseeable future to catch up.

In 1919, Oregon instituted the first state gas tax dedicated to road construction. Since then, the gas tax has been the user-fee of choice: those who use the roads pay for them — roughly in proportion to use.

Montgomery County Engineer Paul Gruner said the rise in fuel economy, miles driven and the use of alternate fuels is uncoupling that connection between road use and how much the user pays.

“The fuel tax is not a long-term answer,” he said.

Instead, Gruner and others see linking the miles traveled to the amount a driver pays.

“The technology is there” for a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax. “There is a way to have a user-based fee that is simple and easy to use,” said Jim Whitty, manager of the Office of Innovative Partnership and Alternative Funding for the Oregon Department of Transportation. The Oregon Legislature is currently considering a VMT tax.

The proposed VMT tax would apply to vehicles with mileage ratings of 55 miles per gallon or greater. Under the proposal, owners could choose on of several technologies available to track their mileage. They would then be billed quarterly, Whitty said.

“It takes in a few people, but gets the electric-powered and plug-in hybrid vehicles who pay little or no fuel tax,” Whitty said. “These are also the vehicles that already have the internet technology built in. … It’s something that could be expanded to include more vehicles.”

The future

Tucked away in the ODOT budget signed last week by Gov. Kasich is language establishing a Joint Legislative Task Force on Department of Transportation Funding to study the elimination of the state fuel tax.

Many hope this state will come up with a better method of funding.

“We know there has to be a national dialogue,” ODOT’s Faulkner said of the task force. “Somebody has to initiate the conversation.”

“I’ve been harping about this issue for the last couple years,” Greene County’s Geyer said. “Now that ODOT is feeling the pinch, my hope is something will be done.”

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