Utah state auditor says ‘gas tax is slowly dying’

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Utah State Auditor John Dougall, pictured at the Utah Capitol on May 23, 2019.

Utah transportation officials have warned about it for years. So have legislators. Now, State Auditor John Dougall is adding some ammunition to arguments that Utah really needs a new way to pay for roads besides the gasoline tax.

“The gas tax is slowly dying,” Dougall said Wednesday as he released a series of charts showing why.

“With more fuel-efficient cars and the migration to alternative-fuel vehicles, the drivers’ funding of the transportation system is weakening,” he said.

Because of cars that use less gasoline and generate less gas tax, Dougall’s charts show that the amount of gas tax collected per mile driven is dropping more every year. Increasing tax rates occasionally has not kept up with the loss.

“The motor fuel tax no longer appears to be an effective long-term means of paying for roads and bridges,” Dougall concluded. “Over the next few years, Utahns need to identify how best to fund the highway infrastructure they expect.”

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Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, also predicted last month that the gas tax will be replaced eventually by charging car owners for every mile they drive and by imposing more tolls.

“This is the future way,” Braceras said. “We’re going to fund [transportation] based on how much of the services you use.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Department of Transportation.

He said that’s needed because over the past 15 years, the purchasing power of the gas tax has done down by 70%.

Braceras said the state just took a first step away from the gas tax with the new voluntary Road User Charge program that it launched Jan. 1 for the owners of the 51,000 electric and hybrid vehicles in the state. It is only the second such program in America. The other is in Oregon.

Owners can choose to pay 1.5 cents for every mile they drive, usually measured by a transponder they plug in under the dashboard. It is paid automatically from a customer account connected to a credit card. Drivers are charged no more during the year than the amount of the higher registration fees such alternative-fuel cars now face, and perhaps less.

Braceras said lessons learned through that voluntary program could someday help expand it to all drivers to help replace or supplement gasoline taxes.

Braceras also predicted that tolling will be used more in the future, and the Legislature in recent years made changes to allow that.

UDOT is studying imposing tolls in canyons, in part as a way to control congestion on roads to ski resorts and encourage use of mass transit. UDOT also charges tolls to single-passenger cars to use the 80 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 15 and could eventually raise them to generate extra revenue.