We’ve probably all thought it at one time or another: I really wish I could pay more for gasoline.
OK, maybe not.
But here’s the thing: We might need to.
Ohio’s transportation infrastructure – the system of roads and bridges we all use to get around – is in trouble. The state gas tax, one of the primary funding sources for that infrastructure, has been flat since 2005, stuck at 28 cents a gallon.
Highway construction costs are going up, a turnpike bond program is out of money, and vehicles are getting better and better gas mileage. The latter is great for the environment, but it’s bad news for a system of roadways that relies heavily on people buying gas.
If nothing changes, the Ohio Department of Transportation is predicting a $156 million shortfall for road and bridge maintenance in 2020.
By 2030, that shortfall would skyrocket to $780 million.
“More crashes will happen. More people will get hurt. And, more people will die,” said Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jack Marchbanks, testifying during a recent state hearing on infrastructure funding. About one-third of highway deaths can be at least partially attributed to poor road conditions, Marchbanks said.
New Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has made transportation infrastructure funding one of his top priorities, appointing a committee to figure out how to best raise more money. After meeting twice, it seems highly likely that committee will recommend raising the gas tax.
The Ohio Senate president and other lawmakers have already said they’re not keen on raising taxes, but what else could the state do?
Here are some ideas:
Pay by the mile
A few states have experimented with what might be the fairest system of them all: Treat roads like a utility and charge only for the miles traveled.
It’s pretty simple, really. Strap a GPS or other tracking device on your car, and, instead of paying a per-gallon tax at the pump, pay a per-mile bill later. In Oregon, the charge was 1.5 cents per mile.
The charge typically applies equally to every vehicle, be it a gas-guzzling SUV or a more- eco-friendly hybrid. But, the fee could be adjusted for trucks or other vehicles known to generate more wear and tear on roadways.
Colorado piloted the idea in 2017, and testers said they felt the system was fair. It hasn’t gained much traction for several reasons, though. First of all, tracking mileage with a GPS screams “Big Brother,” and not all drivers want to hand over that information to the government, even with privacy protections in place.
Second, environmental advocates worry drivers may be discouraged from buying electric and hybrid vehicles if, regardless of emissions, everyone pays the same per-mile fee.
Third, none of the states piloting the charge has figured out how to capture mileage for out-of-state drivers. It doesn’t seem fair to make Ohioans pay for every inch they drive while out-of-staters cruise around with impunity.What do you think? 27 92
Charge property tax on vehicles
We already pay property tax on our houses; what if we did the same for our cars?
That’s what happens in Kentucky, where people pay an annual tax based on the value of their vehicles. The state rate is 45 cents for every $100 of vehicle value. There are local vehicle property taxes as well, with those rates set by each local jurisdiction. Together, they raise about $405 million a year.What do you think? 34 76
Put a toll on it
It could be simple: Drive on this road, pay this toll.
Or it could be an optional express lane. Don’t want to sit still during rush hour? Pay a toll, and you can zoom right on home.
Tolls are not exactly known for their popularity, but more and more states are looking to them as one way to bring in extra cash for road maintenance, said Bill Cramer, communications director for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents toll facility owners and operators.
“We don’t go out and say, ‘You should toll every road there is,’” Cramer said. “We think that there should be a mix of funding options, because for the last three, four, five decades, we’ve pretty much been relying on the gas tax.”
Any new toll would face plenty of opposition, though. Tolls are complicated and costly to run, said Stephanie Kane, communications director for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates. Sometimes, as much as one-third of the revenue a toll brings in is used just for operating costs, Kane said.
She said tolls can slow down first responders, cause wear and tear on secondary roads as people reroute to avoid the fee, and drive up expenses for shipping companies, a burden often passed on to consumers.
Tolls are just “bad policy,” Kane said. “There are so many negative consequences to tolls. The winners, really, are the tolling companies who are operating the toll.”What do you think? 38 67
Make the Prius drivers pay
Roads need repaired because people drive cars on them. The fix-it money comes from the gas tax. But people who drive electric or hybrid cars buy less gas (and thus pay less of that tax).
So, a special fee for such drivers would mean everyone paying his or her fair share.
Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Township, is pitching a similar idea where Ohioans would essentially pay an annual road-maintenance fee in lieu of the gas tax. Drive a hybrid or a regular gas vehicle, it doesn’t matter – we’d all pay the same fee.
For those who couldn’t afford the upfront fee or who live out-of-state, they could continue to pay the regular gas tax at the pump, Coley said.
“As we encourage more and more people to drive eco-friendly vehicles,” he said, “this is a great way to have that happen without penalizing the quality of our roads and bridges.”
The downsides? Again, it might discourage people from buying eco-friendly cars. And, frankly, it’s just not enough.
The Ohio Department of Transportation did a rough estimation that shows a $250 annual fee on electric vehicles and a $75-a-year fee on hybrids would bring in about $2.5 million a year. Next to a $156-million-and-climbing deferred-maintenance deficit, that’s pretty small change.What do you think? 58 54
Just raise the gas tax, already
God forbid you ever have to fill up your tank in Pennsylvania. The gas tax there is the highest in the nation, 58.7 cents per gallon.
It turns out we have it pretty good in Ohio where the tax has been at 28 cents per gallon since 2005. That might be why DeWine’s committee seems so keen on the idea of raising the tax. Perhaps it is time.
Assuming the legislature is on board (and that’s a pretty big assumption), one solution is a flat tax increase: Pick a new number, vote it into law, and that’s it.
Another solution is a variable increase, one tied to, say, highway construction costs or the price of gasoline. That way, as the market changes – gas prices drop, for example, or construction costs shoot up – the tax would automatically adjust accordingly to still bring in enough revenue.