Republicans hate taxes, but in Utah, our Republican-dominated leadership also loves roads. And therein lies a conundrum.
A new study by the Utah Foundation compares the state's transportation needs through 2040 totaling about $70 billion with what current taxes and fees will provide about $43.4 billion.
That leaves a shortfall of $26.6 billion for all transportation projects. The Beehive State's Unified Transportation Plan lists high-priority transportation needs that would cost at least $54.7 billion over the coming 27 years, leaving a shortfall of $11.3 billion for the projects that are most needed.
The state's entire budget for the coming fiscal year is about $13 billion.
The solution is obvious, as painful as it might be for legislators: raise the fuel tax.
Utah has not increased its fuel tax since 1997, when it was set at 24.5 cents per gallon. Since then the state's population has grown steadily, even during the years of the Great Recession, and the resulting traffic has put a strain on existing roads and highways. The state's focus on sprawl the growth of housing developments far from jobs and commercial centers has created a need to move many people many miles.
The growth of Utah Transit Authority projects, including more TRAX lines, expanded FrontRunner and commuter bus lines, has helped reduce the need for more roads, and that emphasis must continue if we are ever to begin to control worsening air quality along the Wasatch Front.
An awareness is growing that locating businesses and shopping centers close to transit stations makes sense. The idea of "walkable communities" is catching on.
But the benefits of transit and better growth models won't be realized for years. In the meantime, it's necessary to raise the fuel tax, both to provide revenue and also to discourage the one-person-per-vehicle commuting mentality.
The Utah Foundation report also encourages discussion of additional revenue-generating policies: indexing the fuel tax so it rises automatically with inflation; adding sales tax on top of fuel tax; raising registration fees; charging a new tax per mile traveled; or charging tolls that may vary by level of congestion on different roads or lanes.
The traditional fuel tax generates less per mile traveled because vehicles get better gas mileage, and some people drive less when gas prices are high. Any change should encourage those trends while boosting total revenue. There is much more than money at stake in this discussion.