Highway funds

The growing number of vehicles using electricity or other alternative fuels, or the possibility motorists simply aren’t driving as much, has put a crimp in gasoline tax revenues and sent state and federal governments looking for new ways to fund highway maintenance and construction.

Various options are on the table, but it will be hard to find another tax as fair and accepted by motorists as the gasoline tax. Although the fuels tax is a somewhat crude measure of highway usage, it has a number of advantages. People who drive more miles or drive heavier vehicles that produce more wear and tear on highways need more fuel and therefore pay more tax. People also mostly buy gasoline in the same places they drive. Even out-of-state drivers often must buy gasoline in the states where they are driving, thereby supporting the highway budgets of those states. Gasoline taxes also are relatively easy to collect.

One option being explored is to tax the actual mileage a person drives. This, of course, isn’t popular in rural areas where people must drive everywhere. It also has the undesirable impact of lessening the incentive for people to buy hybrid or fuel-efficient cars.

And, at least at the current time, it’s hard to see how mileage-based system could be equitably applied. Kansas could require people with vehicles registered in the state to report their mileage each month or year, but what about all of the out-of-state vehicles that crisscross our state every day? A mileage-based system would be more equitable if it were applied nationwide, but are states willing to live with federal decisions on how that tax revenue should be redistributed to the states?

More toll roads might be another option, but such a system would be inconvenient, and the cost of collecting tolls on multiple highways would cut into the net revenue collected.

At least for the foreseeable future, highways are an important part of a state’s economic vitality, and, until the use of alternative fuels becomes more widespread, it seems that raising the gasoline tax is the most practical way to fund those highway systems. The next generation of energy sources and transportation systems probably will demand some innovative thinking for funding systems as well, but officials have a little time to come up with a sound solution.