State Roadway Management: Responsible, Or Not?

During the 10 PM KFOR News report on Thursday, 6-10-04, state Senator Robert Milacek was interviewed regarding the tragic death of Yvonna Osborne on I-35. Senator Milacek seemed to indicate that that incident, in which a chunk of concrete from an I-35 overpass fell on Ms. Osborne's car, may have been attributable to the the failure of state legislators to pass fuel-tax increase referendums over the last several years.

Senator Milacek may have a point - at least as far as the responsibility for proper management of state highways lying first at the door of the state legislators. However, he, himself, is very certainly one of the parties responsible for consistently avoiding the duty to "play it straight" with the people of Oklahoma.

I've visited with Senator Milacek about these matters - laying out the true nature of the situation in detail. The Senator could not disagree. My facts were in order. However, as has consistently been the case with state legislators for many years, he has refused to act responsibly for needed reforms.

Who among us would build a highway with our own money -- but then contend "we don't want to know" what those who operate vehicles on that road ought to pay for its use? What business would be content to operate that way?

In its entire history, Oklahoma state government has never completed a comprehensive audit of the costs of highway use - known as a "Highway Cost Allocation Study" - for state roads. Such studies are rightly considered fundamental to proper highway management in other states - but our legislators apparently "don't want to know" what each class of vehicle currently using state roads ought to be paying versus what it now pays. Are the taxpayers being deliberately kept in the dark?

In truth, the "problem" with state roadway maintenance is NOT that the driving public "doesn't pay enough." To the contrary, there's reason to believe most Oklahoma auto and pickup operators may overpay their legitimate cost responsibility. However, while a standard semi-trailer truck can regularly inflict up to 9,600 times the pavement damage done by any automobile, big diesel trucks have paid 3 cents per gallon LESS state fuel tax than autos pay since 1987. Meanwhile, truck volume has predictably skyrocketed (people will "ride a free horse to death..."). State officials were rightly alarmed by a 38% increase in big trucks on state highways in the decade of the 80s. However, the problem increased far faster in the 1990s. Between 1996 and 1999, "vehicle miles traveled" by big trucks on our public roads grew from 5.6 billion annual miles to 13.4 billion.

There is only one answer to the state's highway maintenance problems - and that's responsible management. Such management is IMPOSSIBLE without accurate, verifiable knowledge of what each class of vehicle using our roads should be paying. A couple of years back, the Oklahoma Transportation Center at OSU was supposedly tasked with doing a comprehensive Highway Cost Allocation Study for the state; however, no legislator now seems to know anything about it. It's the kind of thing that can't be done properly unless it's out in the open. "Mystery" in such cases is a clear invitation to special interest tampering.

One thing is certain: Milacek's goal of raising fuel taxes, yet again, "shotgun style," cannot bring us better roads. Proof of this? Since the last major state fuel tax increase in 1987, Oklahoma roads and bridges have gotten far worse far faster than at any time in state history. That also happened to be when gasoline tax was raised 3 cents per gallon higher than diesel tax - forcing the driving public to foot a larger part of commercial trucking's road-use bill.

Only when the most damaging roadway users are brought to pay for the damage they inflict will things change. Complete reform of the state's roadway user fee system is called for. Will our leaders admit this -- or do they just want to "raise our taxes" again?

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