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Published: Sunday, 1/22/2012

Editorial

Raise Ohio's gas tax

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Ohio Transportation Director Jerry Wray says completion of a number of big road projects across the state -- including the final phase of the upgrade of the I-75/I-475 junction in central Toledo -- will be delayed because of a lack of money. At the same time, Mr. Wray asserts that "I don't think anybody is interested" in increasing the state's motor-fuels tax rate to raise more money for roads.

Nobody? Given the choice of paying a few cents more at the pump or continuing to drive on obsolete, unsafe, dilapidated roads and bridges, a fair number of Ohio motorists likely would opt for the former. At least it's a question that the Kasich administration and state lawmakers should debate, not dismiss.

Mr. Wray said last week that planned local improvements to I-75 and the current U.S. 24, and construction of a McCord Road underpass to replace a deadly rail crossing in Holland, will have to wait. Other road construction projects in northwest Ohio could stay on hold for 25 years. That's tantamount to killing them.

There is now no money to widen I-75 between I-475 and Phillips Avenue, the director added. That will largely negate the benefits of rebuilding and widening ramps that connect the two freeways.

Mr. Wray said his department must greatly scale back its long-range road construction program to reconcile it with available revenue, citing a $1.6 billion gap. The deferred projects, in this area and across the state, are not mere pipe dreams, but important additions to Ohio's public infrastructure.

If anticipated revenue is inadequate to accommodate these high-priority projects, why is it politically unthinkable to consider raising tax revenue?

Ohio's 28-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel has not risen in nearly seven years. The state motor-fuels tax is the second-largest source of funding for roads, after money from Washington generated by the 18.4-cent federal gasoline tax (which has not changed since 1993) and the 24.4-cent diesel tax.

Since the state tax last increased, cars and trucks have become more fuel-efficient. That's good news overall, but it tends to depress fuel-tax revenues; the state Transportation Department dubiously projects that these revenues will continue to grow. Meanwhile, construction costs have increased.

A higher fuel tax would encourage motorists to drive even more fuel-efficient vehicles, helping to hasten the development of hybrids and other alternative technologies, and to conserve fuel in other ways -- such as driving less. That would improve air quality and reduce Ohioans' reliance on foreign oil, much of it supplied by hostile regimes.

Accelerated road improvement and construction would put Ohioans back to work. Revenue from a higher fuel tax also could support public transportation, reducing the threats to economically necessary systems such as the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority.

Gov. John Kasich insists that Mr. Wray's dire forecast is un-related to the administration's proposal to lease the Ohio Turnpike to a private operator. Administration officials say privatization could raise as much as $3 billion in funding for transportation projects across Ohio.

But motorists who live near the turnpike route in northern Ohio are understandably suspicious that they would wind up subsidizing road projects in the rest of the state, while they fear that turnpike tolls would rise and services would deteriorate under a private operator.

Director Wray said that previous administrations in Columbus "weren't realistic" about matching their construction plans with likely funding. Equally unrealistic is the idea that state leaders can continue to recite their no-tax mantra without big and unpleasant consequences for essential public services.

Mr. Wray says he is receptive to discussing the imposition of tolls on some Ohio roads and bridges. If such user fees are an option, then a higher fuel tax also should be part of the conversation.



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