No matter how much Utah's conservative Republican legislators hate the words "tax increase," funding essential services is what government is all about. And, whether they like it or not, they are the government.
It makes sense to raise the state fuel tax so the Department of Transportation can build and maintain roads and expand transit options. But building yet another major multilane highway is another matter.
The West Davis Corridor now on the drawing board would be less helpful in making transportation more efficient in Davis County than would upgrading the network of east/west roads connecting to existing north/south freeways and adding more transit options.
Research has shown consistently that building more freeways only increases traffic, making each one obsolete in turn and increasing the demand for more. It's a self-perpetuating "need" that is better met by encouraging more use of public transit like the FrontRunner train and commuter bus systems.
That said, however, the current fuel tax is not meeting Utah's very real need for better maintenance of existing highways, roads and transit, both along the Wasatch Front and in more rural areas.
The gasoline tax was raised 16 years ago from 19 cents to the current 24.5 cents a gallon. During the ensuing years, the population of the Beehive State has expanded explosively. Unfortunately, highway miles driven have grown even faster.
The organization of cities rightly pointed out at a June legislative hearing that, considering inflation, the gas tax is now equivalent to about 15 cents in 1997, and inflation has increased construction and maintenance costs by 300 percent since then. In order to have kept up with inflation, the gasoline tax would now need to be 36 cents a gallon.
Fuel tax revenue is also being affected by vehicles that are more fuel efficient and the growing number that use alternative fuels, mostly compressed natural gas. And the recession has caused Utahns to cut back some on their driving. Those developments are good since they cut air pollution but bad for highway-maintenance coffers.
Cities and counties get about 30 percent of the state fuel tax for local roads, and the state takes 70 percent for state highways. Local government leaders say they cannot continue keep traffic moving without more money. Business leaders and state administrators are also pushing lawmakers to increase taxes for roads and mass transit. An aversion to any tax increase is no excuse for failing to act.