The state fuel tax should be called a user fee, because that's really what it is, and what it was meant to be. Those who spend the most on fuel pay the most, because they are putting the most wear and tear on the roads. The tax funds road construction and maintenance, with a portion going to cities and counties.
The concept of fuel tax as user fee, however, is hitting a snag because, as the cost of gasoline rises, people are buying more fuel-efficient vehicles and driving less. Those are positive outcomes, because they make the air we breathe less toxic. But less money spent on fuel also means less revenue from the fuel tax, and the Utah transportation fund is feeling the pinch, a $27 billion expected shortfall over the next 30 years.
The Beehive State has not raised its 24.5-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax since 1997. Raising the tax now seems heavy-handed, considering unemployment is stuck at 6 percent in Utah, and effects of the Great Recession continue to eat away at employed Utahns' paychecks. Nevertheless, it is the most fair way to pay for new roads and maintenance costs.
And, were legislators inclined to raise the fuel tax, there are alternative methods of doing that. Taxing motorists by the mile instead of by the gallon would increase revenue from drivers who have switched to fuel-efficient vehicles, to hybrids or to vehicles that don't use gasoline at all but still do their share of wearing out the asphalt.
That change might discourage buying cars that get better gas mileage a bad thing for air quality as would another option, the taxing of alternative fuels. But taxing by the mile would also encourage less driving, which could reduce pollution and keep roads in better shape.
Last week legislators called for a summit later this year where legislative committees on taxation and transportation would hear from experts and look at a variety of options for funding new roads and repairs to existing roads and highways, bridges and other transportation infrastructure. On the table for the proposed summit are alternatives such as creating more toll roads; using more property, sales or utility taxes for roads; and the most obvious raising the fuel tax.
Using revenue from other sources, such as property tax, is not the answer. The Legislature has already earmarked 30 percent of sales-tax increases to the transportation fund. Such tax shifting will only hurt public education and other state services.
Raising more revenue from the fuel tax, which is already dedicated to transportation, is the best way to meet transportation needs.