No quick fix in highway bill

Critics say $305B bill won’t meet need for road, bridge fixes.

As a conservative Republican, Greene County Engineer Bob Geyer doesn’t usually advocate for raising taxes.

But Geyer was among those disappointed that the $305 billion Federal Highway Bill that was passed by Congress last week and signed into law by President Obama did not include an increase in the federal gas tax.

“The price of everything that we do in the highway business has gone up in price,” Geyer said. “The amount of funding available to us has not gotten any larger. We are fighting a losing battle.”

Engineers like Geyer are happy that Congress finally gave state and local authorities, if not more money, some degree of certainty for the foreseeable future. The five-year funding plan is the first such bill to be passed in a decade.

But by not raising the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax, Congress ensured flat funding for road improvements for the next five years, said Montgomery County Engineer Paul Gruner.

“This bill does not provide a solid long-term funding source for transportation,” said Gruner. Using gas tax revenue to pay for improved roads and bridges makes sense, Gruner said, because those paying the tax are the ones using the roads.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who sat on the conference committee that produced the final bill, acknowledged it isn’t perfect. Among the troubling portions of the bill, said Brown, was the use of funding from the Federal Reserve as part of the transportation budget and a provision to allow the Treasury Department to deploy private bill collectors.

But Brown said the measure is better than no bill at all because the state badly needs the money to make repairs.

“The dismal state of our outdated roads and bridges and railways is costing Ohioans valuable time and money and energy,” he said. “Surely the status quo is not acceptable.”

‘It’s fantastic’

For some motorists, the decision to keep the federal gas tax where it is was met with relief.

“It’s fantastic,” said Betsy Wiegand of Dayton. “They need to come out here where the regular people are and see what taxes are doing to the senior citizens because they are the ones who are suffering.”

But with gas prices running below $2 a gallon, Geyer said the typical motorist wouldn’t notice a three-cent increase in a tax that hasn’t been raised since 1993.

“It’s not going to mean much out his pocket, but it is going to mean a lot to the highway industry in this state and this country because we have got an infrastructure that is absolutely falling apart before our eyes,” Geyer said.

He considers Greene County to be lucky to have a bridge levy — renewed by voters last month — that remains a dedicated source of local funds for repairs.

New fee tested

The reluctance of Congress to raise the gas tax is only one part of the equation that has kept highway funding relatively flat. Gruner said more fuel efficient cars and electric vehicles tend to push fuel usage and the taxes they bring in lower. Historically, Gruner said, the gas tax was the best way to measure highway usage and place the burden for repairs on those who use highways the most.

The future of highway user fees may be what engineers call “vehicle miles traveled,” literally a tax on each mile a vehicle, gas or electric powered, travels on the roadway. The state of Oregon launched the nation’s first pilot VMT program July 1, charging participants a tax of 1.5 cents per mile while refunding the fuel tax they pay at the pump. The Oregon Department of Transportation posted a comparison chart to help motorists understand what their experience may be under the program, based on an average person’s annual mileage of 12,962 miles.

The department said the owner of a 2014 Toyota Prius, getting 50 miles per gallon, would likely spend $745.57 a year under the traditional fuel tax. With the VMT, that same car owner would be charged $862.23, a $194.43 increase. By comparison, the owner of a Ford F-150 pickup truck, getting just 18 miles a gallon, would normally be spending $2,071.04 a year on fuel taxes. The truck owner would pay $2,049.43 under the VMT, actually saving $21.60. The truck owner would pay less under the VMT because they use more gas and likewise pay more in fuel taxes.

Phase one of Oregon’s VMT program is limited to 5,000 cars and light duty commercial vehicles. About 1,000 have volunteered to date.

Gruner is anxious to see how the Oregon experiment works out, saying the per-mile charge is a fair way of measuring usage.

“The gas tax has always been a way of measuring vehicle miles traveled in a way because most people got about the same fuel efficiency,” Gruner said. That ended with the growing use of more fuel efficient and electric cars.

Finding a more sustainable funding source for highways is absolutely essential, said Gruner, though he acknowledged a per-mile fee would likely meet resistance from motorists.

“Vehicle miles traveled is discussed a lot, but we’re not quite ready to embrace that yet apparently,” he said.

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