There has been much discussion in recent years about the quality of Pima County’s roads. Roads are important for safety, for strong neighborhoods and to make sure we can get where we need to go.
But quality local road networks also are absolutely tied to economic expansion. Businesses demand strong networks to deliver goods and obtain materials.
We all know by now that 67 percent of roads on the northwest side are failing or poor, either because it’s been in the media or because you’ve driven over enough alligator cracking to know. The Tucson environs were pegged as having the fifth worst roads in the nation for large cities, and seventh-highest in terms of wear-and-tear costs for vehicles.
So, what’s the source of the problem? Our state fuel tax was set at 18 cents a gallon in 1991. It’s still 18 cents, 22 years later.
The rate also was never indexed for inflation, so a 1991 dollar spent on a road project is now the equivalent of 51 cents.
We used to get $184 per person in road dollars. We now get $84.
And, it’s going to get worse.
Just last month, a report by a federal panel to the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure said that the U.S. is at a crossroads, with significant shortcomings in the nation’s infrastructure. That conclusion is not surprising, given that the primary source of federal funding for road investment, the Highway Trust Fund, is expected to be broke sometime in 2015.
When our roads and infrastructure crumble, so, too, does our ability to compete with other states in this global economy. We can’t afford to let that happen. But we also don’t have the current funding it is going to take to bring our local roads up to standard, some $270 million by last count.
Is there a solution? We could start by beginning to fund the real cost of maintaining and improving our roads.
A 10-cent per gallon increase in our user fee would bring us closer to the average rate for surrounding states and inject critical resources into our transportation network.
It’s a measured proposal and we’re not alone in considering it. This year, the state of Wyoming – no liberal bastion - raised their tax for the first time since 1998 with a 10-cent increase. Maryland joined them with a 3.5-cent increase – the first in two decades.
It’s not popular. It’s not easy. But it is time for a solution. And this one is a good start to get us where we need to go.
(Editor’s Note: Chuck Huckelberry is the Pima County Administrator.)