For more than a decade, we are told, Utah has been able to stay ahead of the curve on keeping its highway bridges up to snuff by rolling some expensive replacements into the multi-billion dollar rebuilds of parts of I-15 and I-80.
Those days are over.
The bridges that pepper Utah’s highway system are not, collectively, as bad as those found in many other states. But the undeniable fact is that an increasing number of those spans now are, or soon will be, above the age of 50, the age at which experts say a highway bridge needs particular attention and maybe serious upgrades or even replacement.
The estimated cost for a reasonable inspection, upgrade and replacement program is some $9 million a year. And that is, as state transportation officials say, another reason why the 2014 session of the Utah Legislature should swallow hard and vote an increase in the state’s motor fuels tax.
The state’s levy on gasoline and diesel fuel has been stuck at 24.5 cents a gallon for 16 years. That rate sits right about in the middle of a ranking of state fuel taxes and fees as gathered by The Tax Foundation.
Utah’s fuel tax is about the same as the rates found in Colorado and Idaho, less than Nevada’s, but well above the 14 cents a gallon charged in Wyoming (which makes its money from oil production, not fuel consumption).
State officials are proud of the work that has been done in recent years to upgrade our highway system, projects often brought in well under budget.
But with the fuel tax rate unchanged for so many years, the fuel efficiency of the average car much improved and so many bridges reaching the ends of their projected lives all at once, a rate increase is simply overdue.
The alternatives — basically not keeping up with needed projects or shifting the burden to sources other than the tax most closely associated with highway use — are neither fair nor feasible.
A more complicated formula, such as taxing vehicles on miles driven rather than fuel consumed, would be difficult to implement and, if dependent on some kind of Big Brother tracking of people’s movements, very unpopular.
A higher fuel tax should not become a blank check for endless rounds of highway expansion. The proposed West Davis corridor highway project, for example, falls far short of being worth the expected cost. And Utah ought to be more aggressive in funneling more fuel tax revenue into mass transit.
But the state has put off hiking its gas tax long enough. It’s time to catch up.
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