Hold onto your wallets, folks
As state revenue dries up, more legislatures are looking at higher taxes, fees and tolls for truckers

—by Keith Goble, staff writer

California may be grabbing the big headlines, but all but a very few states are struggling with massive budget deficits this year, leaving governors and legislatures scrambling to find money.

At the same time, more and more states say they need funds to make even basic repairs to highways and bridges as transportation trust funds and state budgets dry up.

Truckers are caught in the middle of that struggle. And, as often happens, the crisis has zeroed in on their wallets. Wave after wave of fuel tax hikes, registration fee increases and other plans have crashed into the trucking industry like so much storm surge.

Land Line recently took a look at several of the states and what they have on the table for truckers. Here’s what we found:

The state’s Department of Transportation has announced plans to raise the state’s fuel tax a nickel in 2005 — and every six years thereafter — to help pay for long-range upgrades of roadways statewide.

The funds would pay for $3.6 billion in road projects over the next three decades. The proposal, dubbed “Transportation 2030,” is subject to the Legislature’s approval when it meets in January.

A fuel tax hike is also on the table in Wyoming, where the Joint Interim Revenue Committee has voted to sponsor a bill boosting the state’s fuel tax by 6 cents a gallon.

The increase, which would be phased in over three years, would raise $38 million a year by 2006. Of the total, $13 million would go to roads, $13 million to local governments and $12 million to schools. The fuel tax proposal will need a two-thirds vote to be introduced during next year’s budget session.

Across the country, Maryland transportation officials told a commission the state must raise an additional $300 million annually to deal with safety problems and to reduce congestion by 2010. And there, fuel tax is just one option on the table.

The options include more than doubling the vehicle registration fee and increasing the fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon. A combination of money-raising measures, such as increasing the vehicle registration fee nearly 60 percent and the fuel tax by 5 cents a gallon, also could be recommended.

The 29-member commission, appointed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. to find solutions to the state’s transportation funding problems, will report to the governor in mid-December, shortly before the General Assembly opens its 2004 session.

William Hellman, chairman of the task force, told The Washington Post he did not know whether the commission would recommend one funding option or several. It could also make no recommendation and leave the decision to the Legislature.

The combination of fee and tax hikes is reality in New Mexico. Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation Nov. 14 to finance a $1.6 billion highway construction and repair package.

The package includes $60 million a year in new revenue, including a hike in the state’s diesel fuel tax from 18 cents a gallon to 21 cents. HB15 increases the weight-distance tax 38 percent.

Thirty-nine road projects are proposed in the plan, funded by additional dollars.

An amendment that would have required the state Transportation Department to respond to requests for oversize vehicle permits within 24 hours was vetoed.

An attempt by the North Carolina Department of Transportation to seek federal permission to charge tolls on I-95 to pay for the highway’s overhaul has hit a roadblock.

A spokesman for Gov. Mike Easley said the governor would not approve a plan to place toll booths along the roadway.

NCDOT previously told local media outlets it would seek federal permission to charge tolls on I-95 to pay for $3 billion in roadwork.

The Joint Legislative Transportation Committee had agreed to authorize the highway department to seek the change on the interstate from the Federal Highway Administration.

A report prepared by a consultant hired by NCDOT said the state could pay for the upgrade by charging drivers $18 to travel the entire 182 miles the highway wends through eastern North Carolina.

The governor did not block the effort, but will not sign off on it - a requirement for the plan to move forward.

Highway interests have called for increasing Pennsylvania’s fuel tax by as much as 8 cents a gallon to help fix the state’s roads and bridges.

The state now collects about 31 cents a gallon in taxes on diesel fuel - 2nd highest in the nation. The gas tax is 26 cents a gallon.

The Keystone State Transportation Funding Coalition cited an industry-funded study Nov. 12 that says accidents, traffic congestion and vehicle damage resulting from deficient roadways cost the average Pennsylvania driver $812 a year - $7.4 billion statewide.

Winning approval for a fuel tax hike is certain to be an uphill climb.

A spokesman for state Rep. Richard Geist, R-Blair, said he wouldn’t support an increase unless Gov. Ed Rendell endorses it first.

A spokeswoman for Rendell said the governor would go along with a fuel tax increase only if legislative leaders do so first.

Oklahoma is another state where transportation officials have said the state may have to consider new taxes - including increases in fuel taxes - to bring its roads up to snuff, The Norman Transcript reported Oct. 30.

Gary Ridley, director of transportation for the state of Oklahoma, said that even though most of the state’s fuel taxes go to roads, the tax - 14 cents a gallon on diesel and 17 cents a gallon on gas - did not bring in enough when compared with surrounding states, which he said averaged 20.5 cents a gallon.

According to the newspaper account, he said the money should be put in a transportation trust fund, and that the state should report each year on how the money was spent.

Ridley said the state needs $150 million more in road money to bring its highways to standards. The state official said almost 50 percent of the state’s 670 miles of interstate highways outside of its toll system were in fair, mediocre or poor condition, The Transcript reported. The national average is 35 percent.

While most states were looking at new income, Wisconsin has decided to go the borrowing route. But a conflict between the governor and the Legislature, resolved with passage of a new law, will limit the amount of money the state can borrow for highway projects.

The legislation resulted from a deal Gov. Jim Doyle reached Oct. 21 with Republican lawmakers to avoid delaying some road work in the next two months, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The law also changes how the money is repaid.

In the budget he signed this summer, Doyle used his veto authority to ensure the bonds would be repaid with transportation funds, which are made up of revenue from the state’s fuel tax and license fees.

The deal allows the first two years of interest on the bonds to be paid with transportation funds. After that, they will be paid off with general fund revenue.

The governor also used his veto authority to increase the amount of money the state could borrow for road projects to $1 billion for the two-year period that began July 1, from $100 million, the newspaper reported. Doyle indicated in July that he planned to use $565 million of the available bonding authority over the next two years for highway projects.

Assembly Speaker John Gard, R-Peshtigo, had threatened to sue, claiming the veto was unconstitutional because it increased borrowing authority without the Legislature’s permission. He claimed the governor could only reduce borrowing authority.

When all else fails, talk to the folks in Washington.

That may be what Alabama does after a recent study called for the state to ask Congress for a large increase in federal funds for roads, The Birmingham News reported.

The study, commissioned by the Alabama Roadbuilders Association, said the state needs a significant increase in funding to maintain its current roads and to build new ones. The Roadbuilders’ study also cited traffic statistics to back up its conclusions, pointing to an 18 percent increase in urban highway traffic between 1996 and 2001, and an expected 40 percent increase by 2015.

The study - quoted in the group’s magazine, The Alabama Roadbuilder - also said:

  • 28 percent of the state’s urban highways are congested. In 1996, the figure was 15 percent.
  • Lane mileage - the number of lanes multiplied by the number of highway miles - increased 1 percent from 1991 to 2001.
  • Vehicle miles of travel increased 47 percent from 1991 to 2001.

The study was conducted for the Alabama organization by The Road Improvement Program, which studies highway issues nationwide.

Keith Goble can be reached Mark Reddig of Land Line contributed to this report.