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? Your roads and bridges do..." went the headline on billboards, radio and TV ads. This organization just flat lied to the people of the state, insisting that "$500 million" of state funds that ought to go to roads has somehow "been diverted elsewhere."
The money they were talking about was the state's motor vehicle tag and registration fee receipts.
It would naturally seem to make sense to the uninformed that tag and registration fee money should go to roads -- but our fathers and mothers' generation knew better. They KNEW that tag and registration fees were levied in lieu of PROPERTY TAXATION on cars, trucks and other vehicles. They also knew that property tax receipts go to the state general fund where it supports the general services of government, most notably public schools. They also knew that if you took that money away from the things it has historically supported and gave it to roads, you'd have to raise taxes elsewhere to make up the difference.
In fact, roadway maintenance has always been funded by motor fuel taxes. This source was generally adequate to the need until the legislative dam was broken on common sense truck size and weight regulation in the mid-1970s. Since then, truck weights as well as truck volume on all public roads has risen. Pavement damage increases exponentially as axle-loading increases. Thus, roads and bridges across the nation have suffered -- and fuel taxation as it has traditionally been practiced is simply inadequate to roadway maintenance need.
"Oklahoma Good Roads and Transportation" is comprised overwhelmingly of trucking and highway contracting interests. Their kinship is obvious. They keep each other in business. Unfortunately, they correctly sized up today's Oklahoma voting public. They knew that most state taxpayers are so woefully ignorant of things their parents took for granted that "sharp operators" with a slick media campaign could manipulate them into believing nearly anything.
Did the "Would you miss $500 million" media campaign work? I talk to people all over the state about what needs to be done for our roads. It's absolutely appalling to me how often folks confidently tell me, "well, you know, the REAL problem is that there's $500 million that ought to go to roads that doesn't..." Worse yet, these folks "think they heard that on the news."
It was a lie -- told by people who not only created our current roadway problems, but who benefit from perpetuating those problems! They just want the money. They don't care where it comes from!
The "news stories" below tell us how a "new group," calling itself "Oklahomans for Safe Roads and Bridges" is trying to float an initiative petition to raise state fuel taxes by public vote. And they don't want that vote during a general election -- the kind where the highest numbers of voters are likely to turn out. They want "a SPECIAL election" fewer voters are likely to participate in.
Who ARE these guys?
Largely the same people who comprise "Oklahoma Good Roads and Transportation," minus perhaps some of the trucking interests.
Neal McCaleb -- yes, "former secretary of transportation," but otherwise a highway engineer 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. In fact, Poe and Associates is the company that got ODOT's contract to design the destruction of the OKC Union Station Rail Yard and its replacement with the "New Crosstown."
Bob Poe has been one of the most arrogant, most insistent and loudest champions of raising fuel taxes via the state legislature. Alas, rising fuel prices kept that from happening, so he's decided to start "a new coalition" to try to do it by initiative petition. This will require "fooling" a lot of people.
Do you believe the people of Oklahoma would never vote such a fuel tax increase on themselves in an era of $1.80 per gallon gasoline? Maybe not -- but these highway contractors understand very well that they successfully lied to many Oklahomans about that "$500 million that ought to go to roads but doesn't." Maybe they figure they can do it again.
What they propose will not make state roads better. It will make them worse at an accelerated rate - because the tax increase they want does not make reforms ensuring that the most damaging users of roads pay for all the damage they do. Instead, it's the driving public that will pay the most to repair pavement and bridge damage overwhelmingly done by heavy commercial trucks.
A standard 18-wheeler operating at its max legal weight -- 80,000 lbs -- inflicts pavement damage equivalent to 9,600 automobiles, yet that truck has paid 3 cents per gallon LESS state fuel tax than the auto pays on Oklahoma highways since 1987. The initiative petition doesn't address unrepaid damage done by trucks over all those years and it only brings what the trucks pay up even with what autos pay -- meaning that taxpayers will again be stuck with most of the costs of truck-inflicted damage.
Now -- ask yourself this question: What does a truck line do with the money it SHOULD have had to repay to taxpayers for road use? Answer: It buys more trucks with that money, dominating more of the surface transport industry each year and bringing ever-increasing numbers of big trucks to public roads, each paying as little as 20 cents on the dollar against the damage it does.
Truck traffic on state roads grew between 1996 and 1999 from 5.6 billion annual miles to 13.4 billion. That's an average yearly increase of about 45%. (By the way, state unfunded highway maintenance need is also apparently growing at about 45% a year!)
In 1987, Oklahoma raised fuel taxes -- from 10 cents on both gas and diesel to 16 cents on gas and 13 cents on diesel. This allowed state highway contractors to get their pockets full for a while -- but there can be no argument that, meanwhile, since that tax increase, our statewide road system has gotten far worse far faster than at any time in history.
In 1996, Neal McCaleb -- as Frank Keating's "Transportation Czar" (simultaneously serving as Transportation Secretary, Director of ODOT and director of the Turnpike Authority) -- crisscrossed the state using exactly the same terms he uses in the articles below. It's a "CRISIS," he said. "We have $11 billion in unfunded highway maintenance and new construction need on existing roads. We need more money."
The legislature gave him $1 BILLION. This put some quick cash into the pockets of the state's highway contractors. But did it even slow down deterioration of the statewide road system? Nope. If anything, it made it worse -- again, because people who don't damage roads were charged to benefit industries that are public roads' chief damagers. As the last few dollars of that "billion" were being spent, at least one national road quality survey pronounced Oklahoma 's bridges "the worst in the nation."
There is only one answer to the problem: We must find a way to gather more roadway maintenance funding to meet the immediate need - but it must come from the main sources of the damage. Meanwhile, we must also scale back truck use of public roads, encouraging much more truck traffic to go piggyback by rail. The way to achieve both vital goals -- the ONLY way -- is to charge the trucks what they ought to be paying.
Fuel taxation is not the best way to retrieve costs from heavy trucks. One better method would be implementation of a high-tech weight/distance fee system using "PikePass" -type transponders. All trucks would be weighed in and weighed out each day or each load and charged for that day or that job's weight over whatever distance it was carried.
Oklahoma could and should parlay its central location, year-around good weather and unique transport asset mix into national leadership in state-of-the-art surface transport technology and service. We should use not just our highways and waterways, but also our unique system of state-owned railways (over 900 miles in addition to the state's commercially-owned rail lines) to develop better ways to move truck trailers from road to rail and back again. The main standard for the program should be that each mode pays its own way.
You'll simply not hear these kinds of answers from the McCalebs or Poes. They apparently do not consider a balanced, market driven transportation system to be in their own best interests. They never have.
It's time to quit listening to them.
Meanwhile, it's high time for the Oklahoma media to dig a little deeper and give the public the whole story.