An effective and efficient transportation system is critical for any successful economy. We have to be able to get goods to market and people to jobs. In a state like ours, it is critically important that we connect our rural communities so oil from the Uintah Basin, Green River melons and Zions National Park tourists can all crisscross the state with a positive economic impact. Unfortunately the key component of our transportation funding strategy is not keeping pace with costs. The gas tax is a constitutionally protected revenue source for roads and transportation funding. We use a cents per gallon model, which is currently at 24.5 cents and has been at that rate since 1997.
In the seventeen years since the last gas tax increase, our vehicles have changed dramatically. Hybrids, electrics, CNG and LNG vehicles have joined the mix while traditional gas fueled vehicles have also become more fuel-efficient. We travel more road miles than ever before, but we use less gas to do so which means we collect less in the tax that pays for road construction and maintenance. It has become an inverse relationship that has shifted more and more of the funding burden to other parts of the budget at all levels of government.
This session, the Legislature is assessing what we can change to more appropriately pair transportation with a funding mechanism or mechanisms that meets the need. While taxing gas, or any other fuel source, will likely always be a part of any transportation funding pool, we need to figure out how to capture revenue from vehicles that use less of the fuel source, but have equal impact on the roads. There are a few clear guidelines as the options are assessed. Any changes need to be something that is uniformly adopted across the state so as not to increase the regulatory or tax collection burden on retailers. We need options to provide an adequate amount of transportation that will let us keep pace with repairs but also optimize movement of goods and people with new construction. The constitutional protection that ensures the gas tax is preserved for transportation (just like the protection of income tax for education) is something to explore further as well. We don’t want to work on a new funding scheme only to see the funds diverted to other areas of the budget. Finally, this discussion and debate about transportation needs and funding mechanisms is an important public policy function that the legislature should revisit at appropriate intervals. Who knows, some future Legislature may find that a tax on dilithium crystals is a more appropriate source of funding.
Please stay tuned and chime in as the Legislature continues this discussion for the next several weeks. This is an important policy discussion as our fuel sources shifts and expands as we continue to evolve in the way goods and people get to market.