Fuel's Errand

Pima County political leaders call for a hike in the gas tax

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has unhappy news for those who are distressed by the state of Pima County streets.

"Santa isn't bringing us new roads for Christmas and the Grinch stole our HURF money," Huckelberry says.

So Huckelberry has persuaded the Pima County Board of Supervisors to support one of those things politicians hate to speak up in favor of: A 10-cent hike in the state's per-gallon gas tax, currently pegged at 18 cents.

He's hoping to persuade state lawmakers to put the question up for Arizona voters to decide.

Huckelberry has pages and pages of data to justify the increase in the gas tax. (You can read his memo online at tucsonweekly.com.) He argues that it's a user fee, so those who drive on the roads pay for the roads. Surrounding states have an average gas tax of 29.7 cents a gallon. The gas tax hasn't increased since 1991 because it is not indexed to inflation, so it buys fewer and fewer miles of road construction and maintenance. And that's before you add in reductions in funding that have come when lawmakers have diverted Highway User Revenue Fund (aka HURF) dollars to pay for other expenses in the state budget.

Here's the problem with putting off street maintenance: The cost of repairing the streets climbs exponentially. Rebuilding a road entirely is 10 times the cost of maintaining with fresh coats of asphalt. Pima County is now looking at an estimated price tag of $268 million to bring roads up to standard. The longer it takes to get that work underway, the more it will cost to do the repairs.

Huckelberry notes that the current cost of gas is forecast to remain at the current level for the next three to four years, so a phased-in hike of a penny or two a few times a year will mimic the fluctuations that consumers already see in prices at the pump.

Huckelberry's arguments have some bipartisan support, at least here in Pima County. Republican Ray Carroll supports the idea of raising the tax, as long as it is dedicated to the roads.

"I'm a low-tax Republican, not a no-tax Republican," Carroll says.

Pima County's other Republican supervisor, District 1's Ally Miller, opposes the tax. Miller, who did not return a phone call from the Weekly, has been a vocal critic of the state of Pima County's streets, but she has said that she opposes raising any tax because she believes the county wastes too much money on other projects.

Some members of the business community support the idea of raising the gas tax, at least in theory. Lea Marquez-Peterson, president of Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told Huckelberry in a July letter that her organization is cautiously supportive of the idea.

"Though increased taxes are never attractive to the business community, we prefer and support the concept of a user tax such as the increase in the gasoline tax," Marquez-Peterson wrote. "We understand that an increase in the gasoline tax will be an additional burden to our business community. However, the cost of auto repair steadily increases due to the state of the roads while we wait for a solution."

Other members of the business community are more skeptical. Dave Perry, the chairman of the Southern Arizona Chamber of Commerce Alliance, told Huckelberry that members of SACCA were "not likely to endorse an increase in the fuel tax at this time."

Perry, in a letter to Huckelberry last month, acknowledged that "Arizona's fuel tax has not kept up with inflation and need." But he expressed concern that if the gas tax were to be increased, lawmakers might continue to divert those gas taxes to other areas of the state budget.

Huckelberry suggests that safeguards against legislative diversion of the gas tax be built into a ballot proposal to ease those concerns. He also says electric cars and other alt-fuel vehicles that don't pay a per-gallon gas tax should be required to pay some kind of annual fee during the registration process.

"We can't have any more free riders," Huckelberry says.

Other counties are having similar problems with upkeep of their transportation systems. Craig Sullivan, executive director of the County Supervisors Association, says transportation ranks as one of the top concerns of county officials across the state.

Sullivan says the roads "are getting progressively worse across the state and road construction is often the No. 1 issue of constituents of boards of supervisors."

Sullivan said that the group has not yet decided what funding mechanism to push for: It could be a hike in the gas tax, or perhaps expanding the sales tax to gasoline sales or a different alternative.

"Right now, we're focusing on elevating awareness of the problem," Sullivan says.

Democrat Bruce Wheeler, who represents central Tucson, says there's "zero" chance the Legislature would approve a gas-tax hike.

Wheeler says he would have a hard time supporting such an idea as long as lawmakers are sweeping HURF funds.

"Once we see movement in the Legislature living up to its obligations, then I would entertain the idea of a gas tax," Wheeler says.

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