Not a week goes by that someone doesn't ask me why some new road isn't built somewhere or some existing road isn't upgraded, fixed or better maintained.
West Virgina's road system, like that of most states, is stuck in "neutral." It's not going anywhere because there's no money to do anything. Roads that have traffic counts dictating 10-year maintenance cycles are now on 25-year cycles, and those cycles will probably get longer. Prepare for potholes galore.
The amount of money coming into our road fund is now so small that it will take the next five or six years to complete all the projects that have already been approved. This includes everything from maintenance to new construction. So any new idea will have to wait almost that long before we even begin to think about it.
During the last regular session, completed in late March, the legislature approved a doubling of drivers' license fees and vehicle registration fees. This would have brought in about an additional $40 million per year to the road fund. The bill dedicated all this money to secondary roads. This extra money would have increased the maintenance schedule of our secondary road system, but it was vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. I think Gov. Tomblin is doing an excellent job overall, but I disgree with this decision.
I voted for the bill because I believe we desperately need the extra funds (I'm convinced we need a lot more than $40 million). But is raising license and registration fees the fairest way to get the money we need?
The license and registration fees we have are dedicated to roads. But much more money is brought into the road system by the fuel tax, which is the fifteenth highest in the country. Which of these is a more fair way to collect money for road construction, repair and maintenance?
Fuel taxes are paid by people who use the roads. That tax is a true "user fee." The more one drives the more one pays via this tax. License and registration fees, by contrast, are paid equally by all who have vehicles. A driver's license costs the same whether you drive 10,000 miles per year or 30,000. Registering a vehicle of a given weight costs the same no matter how often you use that vehicle. The more miles one drives the more damage one does to the roads.
On the other hand, many folks who drive a lot do so not because they want to but because they must. Job or family considerations often force folks to drive farther and longer than they would like.
A higher percentage of money raised by the fuel tax (over 95 percent) gets into actual roadbuilding and repair than is the case with license and registration fees (about 85 percent). That's because adminstering the license and registration fees requires public employees, while collecting the gasoline tax is done for us by merchants. However, since we already have enough people employed to administer the license and registration fees, any additional money collected would all go directly to building and fixing our roads. Tolls are even less efficient than fees.
So, should we raise general taxes to pay for roads? Should we not raise any taxes or fees, and instead reduce our funding of schools, police, prisons, public health, environmental protection and other services to get more money into roads? My answer to the former is I'd rather not and to the latter is absolutely not.
Some have suggested what is called a "mileage" tax as a solution to the problem. A monitor would be attached to your vehicle so the government would know to the tenth of a mile how much you have driven in a year and collect it with your income tax. This sounds to me like a more intrusive version of the fuel tax.
The argument for the mileage tax is that one of the reasons the fuel tax isn't bringing in as much money as before is that people generally are buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. And this is bad? Why would we want to discourage folks from buying cars that are more fuel-efficient (which the mileage tax would surely do).
Eventually we'll probably have to find a source to supplement the fuel tax and/or license and registration fees to fund our roads. This will be particularly true if many more electric cars hit the road. But the fuel tax and/or license and registration fees are for now the best method we have for funding roads, in my view.
Opponents of the fuel tax say that higher fuel taxes mean higher gasoline prices. Actually, this is a minor factor. Virginia's fuel tax is 12 cents per gallon below West Virginia's, yet gas prices in Loudoun County regularly are equal to or no more than five cents below ours. Prices near Winchester are lower than in Loudoun, but the tax there is the same. Also, much of the fuel bought in West Virginia is by folks travelling through our state. Should they not pay for their impact on our roads?
Ironically, the best funded roads in West Virginia are those in the municipalities of four of our 55 counties. They are Jefferson, Hancock, Ohio and Kanawha. These are the four counties with "racinos" (racetracks with casinos).
The statute authorizing table games was amended two years ago to increase the amount of money local governments get from the games (the so-called "better-deal" bill). One provision gave an extra one percent of net table revenue to municipalities in those counties. A clause in this provision, insisted upon by the West Virginia Lottery Commission, restricted this particular money to "capital improvements." Street repair and maintenance is usually the largest capital expense of a municipality.
That's why the streets of Shepherdstown are among the best in West Virginia at the moment. And this will remain the case for the forseeable future, even as the state-maintained roads and streets right outside Shepherdstown deteriorate more and more (unless we raise taxes or fees).
West Virginia is one of only four states (the others are Delaware, North Carolina and Virginia) with no county-maintained roads. Every road outside a municipality is maintained by the state. There has been some talk of returning responsibility for secondary roads to the counties (they were relieved of that during the Great Depression to keep them solvent).
Were that to be done counties would have to be given additional taxing authority in order to be able to afford the responsibility, since all their financial resources are already spoken for. There is no free lunch.