As we report today on the front page, the pothole season isn’t just nearly upon us again. To many drivers in the Flagstaff region, it never left this year.
A trip along I-17 and I-40 in any direction from Flagstaff provides the proof. Dozens of little white patches dot each mile of the right-hand travel lanes, some crumbling into divots and crevices. Meanwhile the passing lanes are nearly as full of vehicles as the travel lanes – who wants to bounce and swerve all the way to Williams when relief is just a lane away, even if it does create dangerous passing conditions?
ADOT says the past winter had an unusually high number of freeze-thaw cycles. They have put down a new surface on I-40 in sections this summer between Flagstaff and Williams and will work on I-17 south of Flagstaff next year.
But civil engineers like Flagstaff’s Mark Woodson say the state hasn’t been keeping up with the timely maintenance that winter roads require and now ADOT is paying more to resurface and rebuild the roadways. It’s not only more costly in the long run but dangerous to drivers – the crumbling pavement is blamed for a rising number of high-speed accidents, not to mention blown tires and broken axles.
What’s really at issue, though, is not just unfilled potholes but failed leadership on a sustainable way to finance roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure. The state gas tax of 18 cents a gallon hasn’t been raised since 1991, and more efficient vehicle engines since then have meant that revenues from gasoline purchases haven’t kept pace with the explosion of miles driven each year. Arizona drivers put 67 billion miles on their vehicles last year, up 12 percent in just the past five years, while gas tax collections have remained flat.
Meanwhile, state elected officials continue to divert gas taxes and vehicle fees meant for cities and counties to the Highway Patrol – some $86 million is proposed this year. Yet they block a statewide vote on a 10-cent-per-gallon hike in the gas tax that would raise about $300 million a year. By comparison, ADOT spent $282 million over the past three years on maintenance and repairs statewide.
But didn’t Flagstaff and Coconino County just pass in 2014 a higher sales taxes for local road repairs? True, in part because the Legislature has never restored the localities’ full share of gas taxes after the recession. So now the talk is about getting legislative permission to put a gas tax hike on the Coconino County ballot, then dedicate it to the state roads that ADOT is neglecting. (Like the income tax, a gas tax at the local level has been pre-empted by the Legislature.)
TAX HIKE OR TAX REFORM?
This approach, of course, lets the state off the hook for meeting basic infrastructure obligations, just as lawmakers and the governor have not made up shortfalls in state school funding since 2009 but refuse to support higher taxes. It’s why the Arizona constitution allows citizens' initiatives, and maybe it’s time to talk about a gas tax hike on the ballot along with a dedicated schools tax.
Some economists have talked of comprehensive tax reform that shifts the gas tax from per-gallon to price-based while expanding the reach of the state sales tax from goods to services, but at a lower overall rate and a deep cut in income taxes. Such a consumption tax would not only be more fair in a state like Arizona with a service-based economy but tap some of the luxury services used by wealthy retirees. But other retirees on limited incomes that aren’t taxed much anyway are not likely to support a new tax system that raises prices on haircuts and car repairs.
As for the county gas tax, before anything goes on the ballot, we’d be interested in a few protections for local drivers and taxpayers. One would allow the county to use the extra funds to hire its own contractors on its own speeded-up timetable to fix potholes on the interstate lanes within its boundaries. And a second would prohibit the Legislature from backing out from Coconino County’s share of state highway funds the amount the county raises from the extra dime on gasoline sales.
PAY NOW OR LATER
With those caveats in place, we’d urge local elected leaders to put authorization of a county gas tax election on their legislative wish list for the coming session. The White House talks a good game about a big infrastructure push, but winter is getting close in northern Arizona and so far all we’ve heard is talk. As for ADOT, they are falling further behind on winter repairs with no increase in spending on the horizon. An extra dime a gallon would cost the average driver about $40 a year. So we can pay at the pump or at the tire shop, and the last time we checked, $40 wouldn’t even buy half a tire.