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Utah lawmakers looking at gas tax increases to pay for road maintenance

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns may soon be paying more at the pump as the state Legislature considers competing proposals for raising the gas tax for the first time in nearly two decades.

"I think we're going to have to do something. What that something is, I don't know yet," said Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Public Utilities and Technology Committee.

The choice for raising more revenues to pay for an estimated $11 billion in unfunded transportation needs in the coming decades is between increasing the existing 24.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax or switching to a sales tax on fuel.

Much of the money would go toward taking care of the state's deteriorating roadways, especially in rural areas. Some are state highways, and some are locally maintained.

"We are lucky in that we are not in dire straits," said Carlos Braceras, Utah Department of Transportation executive director. "Our roads and bridges are safe, but we're trying to be proactive."

Braceras said the last time the gas tax was raised in 1997, the money went toward adding lanes on I-15 through Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics, as well as other capacity projects, not maintenance.

"We do have a robust program to address the growth that we're experiencing," the UDOT boss said. "The area where we've had … stress is the ability to take care of what we have."

Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, the sponsor of SB160 to raise the per gallon gas tax by 10 cents, said rural highways that receive less traffic are getting little attention.

"Basically we'll fix potholes and push the snow," Van Tassell said. "They are the rural roads where local people live, my local people live, and where Salt Lake goes to play."

He said adding 10 cents to the gas tax would provide $130 million for maintenance, including $40 million for local roads. The cost is expected to be $48 annually for someone driving 12,000 miles a year at 25 miles per gallon.

Van Tassell said it's fortunate this winter has been mild.

"If we had had a lot of snow and cold weather, there's some of these roads that would have been in bad shape," he said. "They would have got worse because of the melting and freezing. … We might have had to rebuild rather than repair."

Van Tassell's bill has already been approved by a Senate committee and is expected to be considered by the full Senate this week. Van Tassell said there could be some changes, such as adding an automatic, or indexed, increase tied to inflation.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, has expressed support for a per-gallon gas tax increase, but House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, backs a switch to sales tax from the per-gallon unit tax.

"Some of the challenges we see in our budgets today are proof that the motor fuel tax that we have no longer does the job," Hughes said. "I am hoping that we do not see a continuation or trying to resuscitate this dinosaur of a unit tax."

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, is sponsoring HB362, which would convert the state's per-gallon gas tax to a sales tax.

Although his just-released bill now says the tax would be 14 percent starting July 1, 2016, Anderson said those figures will change once the average cost of a gallon of gas over the past year is calculated.

The intent, he said, is to set a tax rate that will be revenue-neutral in the first year but rise as gas prices go up. Anderson's bill will also set limits on how high and low gas prices can go with the tax, now listed at $4 to $1.75.

His bill will also allow counties to ask voters if they want to add a 0.25-cent sales tax for all types of transportation needs. Hughes said including the local-option tax increase does make Anderson's bill harder to pass.

"We've got an exploding population," Anderson said. "Many local governments have a severe lack of funding for even maintaining their existing infrastructure. They just do. They are strapped for cash."

So is the state when it comes to taking care of rural highways, he said, calling his bill an attempt at long-term planning to meet the state's transportation needs rather than raising money to pay for a specific project.

"I hope everybody is being honest about this. This is not just about today's needs," Anderson said. "This is about addressing the needs over the next 30 years. I think that resonates with people."

House Republicans are expected to consider taking a position on the gas tax at their caucus Thursday.

Jackson said he is having a similar bill drafted to shift to a sales tax, but he's not sure it will be introduced because Senate Republicans have yet to take a position on a gas tax.

"We've got a dynamic over in the House of Representatives that we have to deal with, so it's just another option on the table to discuss," Jackson said. "That's really the issue."

Niederhauser said he believes Van Tassell's bill has a chance of passage in the Senate.

But the Senate leader said he believes ultimately lawmakers will consider Anderson's approach, too.

"If we're not thinking about the likelihood of that, we've probably got our head in the sand," Niederhauser said.

While Hughes said he doesn't want to see a combination of a per-gallon and sales tax, he remains optimistic the Legislature's majority Republicans can agree on a way to raise additional revenues for roads.

Gov. Gary Herbert did not include a gas tax increase in his proposed $14.3 billion budget, but he has said now is the time to consider it so more state revenues can go to education.

Contributing: Dennis Romboy

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