Today in North Carolina

Roads in search of dollars

April 11, 2014 

— As state transportation officials take up the knotty issue of how to pay for roads in the future, they better first understand the political thicket in which state lawmakers have left them.

Members of the state Board of Transportation are again discussing how North Carolina can pay for road construction and repair as more fuel-efficient cars and alternative-energy vehicles chip away at the dedicated gas tax that now goes for that purpose.

According to Department of Transportation estimates, gas consumption in the state will decline from 5.6 billion gallons in 2007 to 5.1 billion in 2025, about a 9-percent drop. That means fewer dollars collected from a gas tax based on gallons consumed.

Meanwhile, the state population, and the number of motorists, will rise. The population is projected to increase by 2 million people over that period.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that those numbers eventually won’t work.

A report received by a committee of the Board of Transportation contemplates, among other ideas, a vehicle-mile tax as an alternative or addition to the gas tax.

It’s not a new idea. Transportation officials and legislators have been talking about a vehicle-mile tax for a while.

The report says a half-penny-per-mile tax would raise about $495 million per year while costing the average motorists $6.25 per month.

Besides the obvious – that new taxes are unpopular – the notion of tracking mileage driven by motorists has always been problematic.

To do it accurately, North Carolina would have to force GPS-type devices on cars so the state could distinguish between miles driven within North Carolina’s borders and those driven in other states.

But a lot of people would see that tracking as an invasion of privacy.

Collecting the mileage driven during annual inspections wouldn’t show how many miles motorists drove in other states.

Transportation officials, though, sound pretty intent on figuring out something soon, even if the McCrory administration has already committed to holding off on any revenue ideas until after a 25-year transportation plan is released later this year.

“We always thought we had a few more years, and now I don’t think we feel that way any more,” Board of Transporation member Cheryl McQueary told The News & Observer of recently.

McQueary and her fellow board members might need to change their feelings.

Regardless of the need, when legislators passed a major tax overhaul without addressing the transportation dilemma, they expended a tremendous amount of political capital. To believe they could pass another major tax measure anytime soon, especially one that might fall heavily on the middle class, is unrealistic.

Meanwhile, so much of the focus of transportation officials on user-related taxes ignores a basic fact: Everyone in the state, whether they drive or not, depends on a good transportation network.

Businesses need roads to get goods to market; consumers need roads to get those goods.

There is nothing wrong with bringing the use of broader taxes into the discussion.

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.

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