Opinion: Lawmakers need to address road repair funding with gas tax reform

Nelson County Gazette / WBRT Radio

Sunday, April 7, 2019 — My wife and I drove to visit our daughter in Grand Rapids, Mich., this weekend as she prepares to graduate from her master’s program at Kendall College of Art & Design.

Its about a 6 hour and 45 minute drive — if construction zones and the weather cooperate, though they seldom do. If you drive I-65 North between here and Indianapolis, you know that I-65 at any point in central Indiana is typically awash in road work crews, orange cones and concrete lane dividers.

After a really challenging winter season in Northern Indiana and Central Michigan, the lasting impact wasn’t the piles of snow I saw in the corners of local parking lots, but the serious rapid deterioration of the roads in both states.

Both interstate and state roads suffered from more potholes and divots than you can count. I’m sure the men who perform car and truck wheel alignments have stayed busy dealing with the damage the road conditions have wreaked on people’s vehicles.

While Kentucky roads aren’t in quite as bad condition, driving those posthole roads reminded me that Kentucky is another state has more road repairs than it has money to repair them. For a number of years, Kentucky has had “made do” with the best repairs we can make, stretching the road money as far as we can.

State road repairs are funded largely by the tax on fuel sold in Kentucky. The gas tax is 26 cents per gallon on gasoline, and 23 cents per gallon on diesel fuel. The gas tax funding the state collects is also shared with counties and cities for repair of city and county roads. The problem is there’s just not enough of the money to go around.

It’s not a problem unique to Kentucky.

Indiana’s roads — particularly north of Indy — are in bad shape, but the “2019 Potholed Roads Award” would have to go to the state of Michigan.

To her credit, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has a proposal that will help fund much-needed repairs to the state’s roads. She is proposing raising the gax tax from its 26.3 cents per gallon (slightly higher than Kentucky’s gas tax rate of 26 cents per gallon) to 71.3 cents — a 45 cent increase.

The increase would generate about $2 billion for road repairs, and it would give Michigan the highest gas tax in the nation. The additional revenue is enough to make a significant improvement in the state’s roads, experts say.

But why such a large increase?? Gov. Whitmer says the “why” is all around the state — simply get in your car and drive. After an very tough winter, the state’s roads are literally falling apart, as I found out while driving to Grand Rapids this past weekend.

We can justify an argument to raise the gax tax here in Kentucky. Some politicians say the gax tax isn’t a tax, but more of a user fee — if you don’t buy gasoline, you don’t pay any tax. But no matter what you call it, I think its time for the General Assembly to tackle the issue with some meaningful reform.

In this instance, I’m not suggesting state lawmakers raise the gas tax 45 cents; but given the ongoing deterioration of city and county roads across the state, there’s justification for a moderate tax increase. It may be worth following other state’s lead and indexing the gas tax to inflation.

Last year, the state of Indiana approved raising its gas tax by 10 cents, from 19 to 29 cents per gallon — an increase expected to generate an additional $1.2 billion to pay for road maintenance.

I’m not a fan of taxes, fees or anything that removes money from my pocket and transfers it against my will to a government entity. But the simple truth is that if we want to continue to have safe roadways, those of us who drive on them have to share the cost of maintaining them.

In the years I have been a journalist covering local government, I have seen the cost of asphalt more than double, outstripping the pace of increases in municipal tax revenues. The direct result is that local governments have less buying power with what funding they do receive from the state.

Without action to insure sufficient revenues to repair roads, I have a strong feeling our state roads will being to look more and more like those in Michigan.

State legislators let a bill die in committee that addressed the gax tax issue in the 2019 General Assembly. My hope is our legislators will have the foresight and political wil in the next session to address the issue, rather than kick the can down the road.


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