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Published: Thursday, 3/13/2003

Free the highway patrol

Freeing the Ohio State Highway Patrol from the vagaries of the state motor vehicle fuel tax is a sensible idea whose time has finally come in Columbus.

Legislation advancing in the General Assembly would shift about $180 million for patrol operations from a dedicated portion of gas tax revenue to more stable income from various motor vehicle fees.

To offset the $180 million, the bill provides for increases in motor vehicle title fees, registrations, and driver's license fees. At the same time, the legislation would raise the gas tax by six cents a gallon, two cents at a time over three years.

The patrol's annual budget totals $238 million, so 80 percent of it currently is tied to gas tax revenues, which fluctuate with the general state of the economy.

While we are hesitant to endorse any wide-ranging tax increase, a boost in the fuel tax is at least slightly more palatable because it will shift the highway patrol money to road building and repair, which is what the fuel tax ought to be funding exclusively.

The money will go for streets, roads, and bridges in cities, counties, and townships as well as the state system. And, though it's sad to say, Ohio motorists will hardly notice the increase as fuel prices shoot up in response to conflict in the Middle East.

Ohio's gas tax, now at 22 cents, has not been raised since 1993, when it was boosted by a penny.

When it is fully implemented, the six-cent increase will bring in $402 million in new money, which is badly needed to bolster a battered highway system.

After a hard winter like the current one, it is easy for motorists to see the proliferation of potholes and pavement cracks that must be repaired. What is only incrementally evident is the ever-increasing truck traffic.

A study last year by a consultant to the Ohio Department of Transportation predicted a 58 percent increase in truck traffic on Ohio highways over the next 18 years, primarily because most freight is shipped by road.

While we have argued that the state should encourage increased use of rail lines for freight traffic, it is essential to preserve the highway system we have and to add to it where necessary to reduce congestion.

Safety is an important factor in all of this. As motorists nervously traversing the peaks and valleys of winter-scarred pavement know only too well, smooth roads are safe roads.

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