Hike gas tax for safe roads

South Carolina Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Rozier tells a group of business leaders that the state must raise its gas tax to paid for roads on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rozier was elected chairman of the DOT Commission on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

South Carolina motorists pay one of the lowest gas taxes in the nation, and they get what they pay for — an inadequate, deteriorating highway system that each year goes further down the road from bad to worse. That dismal situation is directly related to the inadequacy of state funding, and that’s largely attributable to the Legislature’s refusal to raise the gas tax despite the demonstrable need for more road revenue.

The gas tax was last increased in 1989. Meanwhile, the anticipated shortfall in funding for needed highway improvements has steadily increased, now having reached $40 billion over the next 30 years. It is time for the Legislature to come up with a comprehensive long-term plan. There’s really no way that higher gas taxes can be responsibly avoided.

The gas tax is a user fee imposed on those who drive the roads so that they can pay for highway upkeep. The revenue generated by the tax should be adequate to the task, but it clearly isn’t.

The Legislature’s inaction has given highway users something of a free ride.

Well, not really free, as last week’s report from The Road Information Program (TRIP) shows. TRIP calculated the hidden cost of riding on South Carolina roads, which includes having vehicles jolted by jagged pavement and potholes, with the associated cost of repairing tires and suspension. The extra cost amounted to an average of $1,168 a year. Call it a hidden tax imposed by legislative inaction.

A letter on this page from Auvo Kemppinen describes his experience in being forced off the non-existent shoulder of a rural highway, and the cost he sustained in car repairs, delay and frustration. And while it would be natural to blame the driver of the oncoming truck, those state officials who haven’t provided for safe highways year after year deserve to share the blame.

The TRIP report lists monetary expenses, but not the human cost of injuries and fatalities that can be a consequence of driving on inadequately designed and maintained highways.

Legislators are talking about ways to provide more funding, but some of their conversation appears focused on finding a way to make any tax hike “revenue neutral.” That means a gas tax increase would be offset by a tax cut elsewhere. Presumably that would allow them to honor the pledges for no new taxes, which many have unwisely signed.

So despite the rising awareness of the public and their elected representatives regarding the severity of the problem, there is still the very real risk that the state will end up without enough revenue to start comprehensively addressing the problem. That’s called kicking the can down the road, no matter how legislators want to dress it up.

Using increases from the general fund, for example, would simply take needed funding from other areas of state responsibility, such as schools, prisons and social services. All suffer from a lack of adequate resources and legislators shouldn’t be willing to compound those problems on behalf of highways.

And they don’t have to — not when there are road-related sources of revenue that can be tapped.

Raising the cap on sales taxes for motor vehicles, for example, could supply more funds for roads. So could any increase in fees for licensing and tags.

The state could cut costs by reducing the vast network of state-maintained road miles. Reportedly, South Carolina’s system includes 5,000 miles of roads that are a half-mile or less in length. Those roads would seem local by definition.

But the best idea is to hike the state’s inadequate gas tax, which is currently 18 cents a gallon — almost rock bottom among the 50 states.

A gas tax increase would allow tourists and truckers to more equitably share in the cost of fixing South Carolina highways. Out-of-state motorists pay at least one-third of the gas tax. Some estimates put it at nearly 40 percent.

Lawmakers shouldn’t shy away from a job they were elected to do — fix state highways.

How hard is it to come up with a solution?

Raise the gas tax for better roads, and then make sure that the money is spent only on priorities, such as overdue maintenance and repair of roads and bridges.