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State spurns responsibility to pay for urgent transportation needs, experts say

2015 Trans Morn, Scoop for story1Experts warn that the future of transportation is changing fast, and Arizona must come up with a 21st century plan to fund the massive infrastructure needs the state is facing.

Panelists at the Arizona Capitol Times Morning Scoop transportation forum on Sept. 22 agreed that the state and federal government should be doing more to invest in transportation infrastructure, and predicted that without a comprehensive strategy to increase funding, Arizona will lose out on economic opportunities.

Republican Sen. Bob Worsley of Mesa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the current model by which the state funds transportation infrastructure projects is outdated and underperforming.

He cited a list of “really urgent” transportation projects that federal, state and local governments need to tackle, such as the long-anticipated Interstate 11 project that could connect Mexico to Canada and run through Arizona, a degraded road heading north from the Nogales Mariposa Port of Entry that slows international trade, and the ongoing Interstate 10 widening project between Tucson and Phoenix.

But he warned that starting or finishing those projects will be difficult unless lawmakers re-examine the Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF), which provides much of the state and local funding for transportation infrastructure.

HURF is the main mechanism providing money for local governments to build and repair roads and highways, but since the start of the recession lawmakers have repeatedly swept money from the fund to help balance the state budget. Funding for HURF comes mostly from the gasoline tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1991. Arizona’s 19-cents per gallon gas tax is one of the lowest in the Western states, and Arizona’s tax ranks in the bottom 20 percent of states, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

“We just have an unsustainable financial model with our HURF funds,” Worsley said. “I would like us to, while gas prices are low, finally address how we put money in HURF, stop raiding HURF and really help get our financing system in order.”

The sweeps from HURF are an issue near and dear to the heart of Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, who was first elected to the Board of Supervisors 18 years ago. He said the total amount of money the state has swept from HURF in that time exceeds $1 billion.

Because of the sweeps, and Republicans legislators’ unwillingness to discuss gas tax increases, Carroll said the county has been forced this year to once again bond to pay for their roads.

He said the state has essentially spurned its responsibility out of political expediency and forced counties to make hard decisions like tax increases and bonds to pay for services.

Further compounding the HURF problem, Worsley said, is hybrid and electric cars that use less or zero gas while still traveling on the same roadways gas users pay for through HURF.

Democratic Sen. Steve Farley of Tucson suggested that the state replace the gas tax with a vehicle miles driven tax, but Worsley warned that Arizona lawmakers are “too paranoid” to adopt a model that tracks people’s driving habits to calculate the tax, and suggested a one-time vehicle licensing fee to make up for lost gas tax revenue from hybrid and electric cars.

Arizona Department of Transportation Director John Halikowski noted that his department has studied several different models of generating money for transportation funding, but lawmakers have to realize that regardless of how they raise the money, they’re going to need more money for transportation.

“For me, the issue is whether there is the will to go out there and find that revenue,” he said.

Farley also cautioned that if policymakers ever do find a sustainable model to pay for transportation infrastructure needs, governments should be careful to incorporate flexibility mechanisms into their long-term transportation plans to allow for the rapid changes technology will bring to transportation needs.

He noted that Apple and Google are getting into the driverless car market. He envisions a future where fleets of driverless cars cruise American cities, ready to be ordered up like taxis from a cell phone, which could lead to the decline of private car ownership in the country. And it could mean far fewer jobs for drivers, truck stops closing and rest stops becoming obsolete, Farley said.

“It may mean we don’t have to widen our roads as much, we’d just be maintaining them. Driverless cars can go 50 miles per hour six inches apart because they’re talking to each other. So I’m encouraging you all to think very differently about where we’re going and how we’re getting there. It’s going to take a lot more policy creativity. And it’s going to be a wild ride,” he said.

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