September 24, 2004
Oklahomans should beware of state highway contractors' move to raise fuel taxes

Some time back, Oklahomans were barraged by an expensive media campaign from an outfit calling itself "Oklahoma Good Roads and Transportation." "Would You Miss 500 million dollars? Your roads and bridges do," went the headline on billboards, radio and TV ads. This organization had failed at several attempts to get fuel tax increases through the state legislature. Now they were trying something new.

The "$500 million" they were talking about was motor vehicle tag and registration fees sent in each year by state taxpayers. They claimed this money should have gone to roads, but has been wrongly "diverted" to other uses.

It was all a huge deception.

As our parents' generation knows, tag and registration fees are levied in lieu of PROPERTY TAX on cars and trucks. That money supports government general services, most notably public schools. It was never designed to go to road and bridge upkeep -- nor is there any record that it ever has. The people at "Good Roads and Transportation" knew this very well.

Now, many of the same folks are BACK -- only today they're calling themselves "Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads." They're trying to raise our fuel taxes again, this time by initiative petition.

Who ARE they? Overwhelmingly, they are businesses involved in highway design, construction and supply -- in short, the highway contracting industry. Clearly, they want more money and, apparently it doesn't matter to them how they get it.

Neal McCaleb? Yes, "former Secretary of Transportation," but otherwise a highway engineer and consultant working for highway design and construction firms.

Bob Poe? Yes, "chairman of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce," but in real life, head of POE & ASSOCIATES, another engineering firm specializing in highway design and construction. Poe and Associates reportedly got ODOT's contract to design the destruction of the OKC Union Station Rail Yard and its replacement with the "New Crosstown." It is a road we can neither afford to build or maintain -- but as another roads association spokesman recently admitted, "When you're a highway contractor, ANY road project is a good road project."

Why don't they just tell us who they really are and what they really do? Apparently, they don't want us to know.

That's not the only thing they're not telling us.

In April, 1991, the late Bobby Green wrote the following when he was Director of ODOT: "…the trucking industry should pay the costs of the damages its heavy trucks cause to the state's highways, roads and streets. The industry has never paid its fair share of such costs, leaving the lion's share to the average taxpaying motorists who are imperiled by sharing the roadways they support with the heavy trucks they must also support..."

"As a result of the continual increases in truck sizes and weights, as well as the phenomenal growth in the numbers of heavy trucks using these major routes (a 38% increase between 1980 and 1990), Oklahoma's highway facilities are deteriorating at a rate which exceeds our financial capacity to replace or even repair them."

By the end of the 1990s, truck volume on Oklahoma highways was growing at over 45% a year. An 18-wheeler operating at its heaviest legal gross weight inflicts pavement damage equivalent to 9,600 automobiles -- yet, in Oklahoma since 1987, that rig has paid 3 cents per gallon less state fuel tax than an auto pays.
Director Green told the simple truth about Oklahoma roads: The problem is not just lack of maintenance money. New damage under the wheels of skyrocketing numbers of big trucks is now coming so fast that state taxpayers simply cannot catch up with it.

The only way to finally solve the problem is to make sure that every highway user pays a fair return. As long as the driving public is forced to pay to repair road damage done by heavy commercial trucks, truck volume growth will continue to accelerate. Public roads were never designed to handle anything like the numbers of trucks using them today.

"Just raising fuel taxes" without making reforms ensuring trucking pays its way forces the driving public to pick up even more truck-inflicted damage costs than it did before. With money it should have had to pay for road use, trucking will simply buy more trucks each year, guaranteeing constantly accelerating roadway deterioration.

Do the road builders know this? There is no doubt that they do. There is also no doubt that they depend on truck-damaged roads for large portions of their business. Do they really want the problem solved -- or do they just want another increase in funding for the status-quo?

In 1987 they persuaded legislators to raise fuel taxes. Throughout 1996, Neal McCaleb himself, as Governor Keating's Transportation Secretary, campaigned for even more roadway funds telling town meeting participants we then faced "over $11 billion in unfunded maintenance and new construction need on existing roads." In response, in 1997, the legislature provided $1 billion to highways. Neither of these infusions of cash even slowed down the deterioration of the statewide roadway system. In fact, they undoubtedly accelerated it because the lion's share of the new money was taken, again, from the driving public instead of the trucking industry. By 2002, ODOT Director Gary Ridley said it would cost $40 billion to bring state roads up to acceptable standards.

There are answers: First, we must have a comprehensive audit of state highway user costs, called a "Highway Cost Allocation Study." This will tell us definitively what each class of vehicle using state roads should be paying versus what it now pays.

Second, based on that study, we must completely reform the state highway user fee system
ensuring accurate cost retrieval from each user. Nobody should pay for road damage done by
others. This should reduce what the driving public pays. It should also significantly increase what big trucks pay.

Third, we need to use better ways to retrieve costs from trucking. Most state diesel fuel taxation
should probably be replaced with a "weight-distance fee." This is a proven method in which all
trucks crossing the state would be weighed in, weighed out and charged daily for that weight over the distance it was moved using transponders similar to the Turnpike Authority's "PikePass."

Fourth, we should upgrade and use our unique system of state-owned railways to move more truck trailers and containers "piggyback" by rail. We should also work hard to make it easier for truck lines to move their loads from road to rail and back again, taking as much wear and tear off highways as possible and also benefiting the trucking industry.

Oklahoma can and should parlay its central location, year-around good weather and unique
transport infrastructure mix into national leadership in state-of-the-art surface transport technology and service.

Unfortunately, you'll not hear these kinds of answers from "Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads" and the people behind it.

They've deceived and misled us before. It's time to quit listening to them.


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