Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Stop using property taxes to pay for road maintenance, raise the state gas tax

In 2007, a span of the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

The bridge collapse was an example of what happens when tax-averse Americans let critical transportation infrastructure decay for want of a few extra bucks a year per person in gas taxes.

Just a few months after the collapse, the Minnesota Legislature passed a 5.5-cent increase to the state’s 22.5 cents per gallon gas tax. But despite widespread support, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had eyes on the Presidency in 2008, vetoed it. The Legislature overrode the veto.

Is that what it takes these days – people have to die – to get a critical tax increase for infrastructure that’s vital to the economy and public safety?

Perhaps not. Since 2008, nine states have had the good sense to raise their gas taxes to improve their roads; the latest being Maryland, which raised its tax up to 20 cents a gallon last month. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that another 17 states are either in the process of passing gas tax increases or considering it.

Alas, Arizona isn’t one of them.

In fact, Arizona’s legislative leaders are so backwards, they’re siphoning off some gas tax revenue to augment the funding of the Department of Public Safety rather than giving it to cities and counties to pay for roads maintenance like they’re supposed to.

The recent recession hammered government budgets and every local government made difficult funding choices, including sacrificing some annual roads maintenance to balance the books. The result is a deferred maintenance deficit for the Tucson region exceeding $1 billion.

The roads stink, to put it politely.

The Republican-led Legislature’s resistance (or hatred, perhaps) to tax increases of any kind is forcing local governments to raise their taxes to pay for roads.

Except state law bars counties and cities from raising their own gas taxes, so they’re taxing property instead.

Tucson voters just OK’d (albeit barely) an increase in property taxes to raise $100 million over five years to get started fixing the city’s roads. What happens after five years and how to pay for the remaining $500 million to $800 million-city roads maintenance deficit is still up in the air.

Last week, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry released his proposed budget for next fiscal year (which starts June 1) and it includes an increase to the primary property tax rate. Huckelberry wants to use $5 million of the increase for roads.

That’s literally a drop in the county’s crumbing roads bucket, which is currently estimated to cost about $270 million to fix. And Huckelberry knows it, but he said doing a little is still better than doing nothing.

But taxing property is an awful way to pay for roads maintenance, mainly because it’s horribly inefficient and inequitable.

Unincorporated county residents drive on city roads and contribute to their wear and tear yet they aren’t paying for any of the city repairs. But city drivers have to pay for part of unincorporated county road repairs through the county-wide property tax.

What’s worse, tourists and truckers who don’t live here are getting off scot-free.

The county and city are still getting a share of the state gas tax but it’s just barely enough to pay for maintenance of good roads to keep them from becoming bad roads. Any further reduction by the Legislature will simply add to the roads maintenance deficit.

The only solution is for everyone who drives on Arizona’s roads to pay for their upkeep and improvement through a reasonable gas tax. Yet Arizona hasn’t raised its gas tax, currently 19 cents a gallon, in 22 years. In that time, Arizona’s population has increased by 2.5 million. If the state gas tax had been indexed for inflation, it would be about 32 cents a gallon.

That means state residents are only getting about two-thirds of the purchasing power for their tax that they were in 1991.

An efficient and well-maintained road infrastructure is critical to the vitality of our economy. To let it decay and crumble because of a foolish anti-tax obsession is not only economically debilitating, it’s also dangerous.

Will it take a bridge collapse and a bunch of dead motorists to convince our legislators, and many of the Arizonans who voted for them, that not all taxes are evil and that some are even good for the economy?

Raise the state gas tax. Fix the roads.

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