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HARTFORD — Do Connecticut’s roads pay for themselves?
Not according to a report released Tuesday by the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group. A common misperception is that road-building is paid for by user fees. However, the ConnPIRG. report, “Setting the Record Straight on Transportation Funding,” shows that gas taxes cover barely half the costs of building and maintaining roads in the state.
ConnPIRG is a statewide, non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organization.
Its report found that:
* Federal gasoline taxes were originally intended for debt relief, not roads;
* Highways, roads and streets have received more than $600 billion in subsidies over the last 63 years in excess of the amount raised through gasoline taxes, and
* The amount of money a particular driver pays in gas taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by gas taxes. Drivers pay gas taxes for the miles they drive on local streets and roads, even though those proceeds are typically used to pay for state and federal highways.
“Connecticut needs to make difficult choices about how to fund our state’s troubled transportation system,” says Jenn Hatch, ConnPIRG program associate. “The first task is to discard common myths about how roads are paid for.”
This year, Congress will again address funding for the nation’s Highway Trust Fund, which has been bailed out four times with $35 billion from general funds since 2008. Federal gas taxes have not increased since 1993 and revenues are expected to remain flat as Americans continue to drive less and use more fuel-efficient cars.
“Highway advocates often wrongly portray highway spending as financially conservative by falsely labeling gas taxes as ‘user fees’ that pay for roads,” Hatch says. “Funding programs based on myths instead of on what is most needed is wasteful and unproductive.”
Gene Guilford, president of Cromwell-based Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association, says the general public believes incorrectly that Connecticut’s high gas taxes are all going for transportation.
“The reality is far from true,” Guilford says. “As our state government gets into deeper and deeper budget gaps it fills these gaps, temporarily, by raiding dedicated revenue accounts, including transportation funding designated for highways and bridges.”
Guilford, who heads a 550-member organization of fuel oil dealers and gasoline distributors in the state, points out that because transportation dollars are diverted for non-transportation uses, transportation projects suffer. They don’t get done. Then, miraculously, the state tells voters it needs to raise transportation-related taxes — mainly the gas and diesel tax — to fill a new transportation funding gap.
Since Connecticut no longer has toll roads, a disproportionate share of highway and non-highway funding is paid by two state taxes levied on gasoline — the gross earnings tax and the excise tax. That now totals 43.7cents a gallon.
The Fed adds another 18.4 cents on top of that. New Jersey, on the other hand, has the lowest gas taxes in the Northeast and, therefore, lower gas prices. As anyone who drives the New Jersey Turnpike knows there are tolls.
Guilford argues that the key to fixing the problem is to identify what should be federal, what should be state and what should be a local responsibility.
In principle, only the interstate highways — our key arteries for interstate commerce -— should rise to the level of the federal government. Other highways, streets, sidewalks, bike paths, local transit lines, etc., are more properly state and local concerns.
“If state and federal motor fuel tax ‘theft’ by politicians would end, we’d likely have a far better resource [for] funding transportation projects,” Guilford says. “Let’s try that before raising taxes.”
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