Will Raising Fuel Taxes Help Oklahoma's Roads And Bridges?
According to current Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) Director Gary Ridley, bringing Oklahoma's existing system of public roads up to acceptable standards might cost $40 billion.
How did we get into this mess?
In 1991, the late Bobby Green, who was then Director of ODOT, explained it this way: "The Department (ODOT) and the Federal Highway Administration believe 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."
Director Green was a courageous public servant who believed he owed the people of the Oklahoma, their legislators and other public officials the truth. Sadly, today, we don't get this kind of straight talk from current state leadership.
HEAVY COMMERCIAL TRUCKS ARE FAR and AWAY THE CHIEF SOURCE OF UNREPAID DAMAGE TO PUBLIC ROADS:
According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), a standard "18-wheeler" operating at its maximum legal weight (80,000 lbs) inflicts pavement damage equivalent to 9,600 automobiles.
Yet, in Oklahoma, that rig pays 3 cents per gallon LESS state fuel tax than the automobile pays!
Worse yet, the rate of truck volume growth by the end of the 1990s exceeded 45% a year!
The nation's best roads -- our Interstate Highway System -- was designed to safely carry only 6% truck volume in rural areas; Yet today, rural segments of I-35 in Oklahoma carry minimally 30% heavy trucks, while similar portions of I-40 carry 46%!
With so much damage being done by so many trucks, it's a wonder Oklahoma roads and bridges are as good as they are -- especially considering that the average heavy truck using our "free roads" might pay as little as 20 cents on the dollar against the damage it inflicts, leaving the rest of those costs to taxpayers and unborn generations of their offspring!
RAISING FUEL TAXES WITHOUT REFORMING WHO PAYS THOSE TAXES WILL NOT HELP
In 1987, Oklahoma government raised state fuel taxes from 10 cents on both gasoline and diesel to 16 cents on gasoline and 13 cents on diesel. An extra penny was later added to these numbers (to fund cleanup of underground motor fuel storage tanks), bringing the figure to 17 cents and 14 cents.
There is simply no argument that since the 1987 tax increase, the quality of Oklahoma Roads and Bridges has fallen further, faster than at any time in history.
WHY? Because auto operators got the brunt of the tax increase. In other words, the OWNERS of public roads, whose vehicles don't appreciably damage those roads at all, got stuck with the costs of massive truck-inflicted damage unrepaid by truck lines.
What did truck lines do with money they should have had to pay for road use? They bought more trucks each year, multiplying congestion and roadway damage many times while dominating more and more of the surface transport industry.
IN 1996, LED BY THAT ERA'S TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY NEAL McCALEB, MANY OF THE SAME FOLKS WHO WANT TO RAISE YOUR FUEL TAXES AGAIN TODAY USED EXACTLY THE SAME SCARE TACTICS TO GET ONE BILLION DOLLARS FOR THEMSELVES FROM STATE TAX COFFERS
Secretary McCaleb -- a highway engineer who continues working today as a consultant for road building firms -- told us in 1996 that "more money was needed" because the state by then faced "over $11 billion in unfunded highway maintenance and new construction need on existing roads.
Legislators passed the famous "Billion Dollar Highway Bill" in 1997 -- again charging the public to repair and rebuild roads mainly damaged by commercial trucking.
DID "A BILLION DOLLARS" HELP?
Consider that by the time the last few dollars of that "Billion" were being spent, at least one national road quality survey announced that Oklahoma's bridges were now the worst in the nation!
Meanwhile, within only about six years, total unfunded maintenance need apparently rose from $11 billion to $40 billion -- a 264% increase averaging about 45% yearly growth!
Once again, charging folks who don't damage roads to allow industries that DO to shirk their repayment responsibility not only didn't improve roads, it obviously encouraged the roadway damagers to do more of what they were already doing -- actually further accelerating the problem!
IF THE 1987 FUEL TAX INCREASE AND THE 1997 "BILLION DOLLARS" DIDN'T HELP, WHAT MAKES THOSE PUSHING THE NEW FUEL TAX "INITIATIVE PETITION" BELIEVE MORE SUCH WILL HELP NOW?
These folks know raising fuel taxes without first fundamentally reforming WHO pays them won't help anybody but themselves.
A little research will quickly reveal that those chiefly behind this new drive to raise taxes are HIGHWAY CONTRACTORS.
IS THERE A REAL ANSWER TO OKLAHOMA'S ROADWAY FUNDING PROBLEM?
Yes there is. We must ensure that all users pay for the damage they do to public roads and that nobody pays for damage done by anyone else. This is the only way to get a handle on the problem.
First -- we must have a certified audit of state highway use, known as a HIGHWAY COST ALLOCATION STUDY (HCAS). If free of special-interest bias, this document will show definitively what each class of vehicle using state roads OUGHT to be paying versus what it now pays.
Second - we must insist that our legislators completely reform the highway user fee structure, ensuring that every user pays equitably.
BUT IF BIG TRUCK OPERATORS HAVE TO PAY A LOT MORE FUEL TAX IN OUR STATE THAN IN SURROUNDING STATES, WON'T THEY JUST BUY THEIR FUEL IN THOSE STATES AND DRIVE RIGHT ON THROUGH OURS' ANYWAY?
Fuel taxation as a means to retrieve costs from heavy trucks is outmoded. Using modern digital electronics, it is now possible to create a more accurate system -- called a "WEIGHT / DISTANCE FEE."
In this system, each truck using state roads would be charged for the weight it carried that day or on any given job over the distance the weight was moved. Leading edge "weigh-in-motion" devices and other scales would be used and distance and weight would be accurately reported using electronic transponders very much like the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's "PikePass."
Properly implemented, this would be an extremely fair and accurate means of getting the taxpayers' costs back from commercial users of public roads. it would also ensure that EVERY truck passing through the state pays equitably.
Meanwhile, the state's unique system of railways could be developed to make it possible for trucks and truck trailers and containers to be moved by rail instead of road for most of their journeys.
Make no mistake about it -- those pushing this new fuel tax increase know very well that what they want will not change the current situation -- but, think about it: Do highway contractors -- who make their profits doing road work -- really WANT a reduction in "bad roads?"
PO Box 6617
Oklahoma City, OK 73153-0617
Tel: 405 794 7163
Fax: 405 799 2641