Lakewood Ranch Herald

Florida Transportation Commission facing declining gas taxes for road construction

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- As cars in the United States become more fuel efficient, the amount of gas taxes generated at the pump for road construction and improvements has fallen, with forecasts predicting a continued decline.

How to replace money previously generated by the federal gas tax was among the topics the Florida Transportation Commission discussed Wednesday at Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, with a special emphasis on "user fees."

"This is fundamentally about coming up with a way to replace the gas tax," said Adrian Moore of Sarasota, vice president of policy for the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank. "It's also pretty plausible the path we're on leads us to a highly negative place -- we will use less gas in the future, and taxing gas in the future is not going to give us enough money."

Commission members were unusually frank about the public's aversion to "user fees" and "managed lanes."

"The bad stuff is going to hit the fan pretty soon because people are beginning to realize that managed lanes are really toll roads," said former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré. "People don't like tolls."

In 2014, the U.S. government took in gas taxes amounting to $35 billion for the Highway Trust Fund account, and paid $45 billion to the states. Congress stepped in with a $10 billion bailout, said Stephen Reich, program director at the University of South Florida Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa.

The Highway Trust Fund has been squeezed for revenue over the past few years since more funds have been approved for states to spend than can be supported by gas tax revenues, he said.

Lawmakers have until May 31 to pass a transit bill to pay for the trust fund.

However, with the U.S. Congress and Florida Legislature seemingly averse to any tax increase, even to pay for roads, bridges or transit systems, transportation officials are seeking other alternatives.

Ferré issued an impassioned plea for buses to operate like train lines, zipping along in dedicated highway lanes at 50 mph to 60 mph. They operate at a fraction of the cost of light- or heavy-rail lines because they don't require their own complex infrastructure and are efficient and flexible.

"Bus Rapid Transit," or BRT mass transit, offer a better, cleaner, more comfortable way of moving people and are simple and quick to create, he told the commission, a citizen's oversight board for the transportation agency.

"We can do this in two years," he added.

Commission member Beth Kigel said she attended a conference in Portland, Ore., where transportation officials were readying a pilot program involving 5,000 volunteer drivers testing a "road usage" program.

The Road Usage Charge Program, starting July 1, authorizes the Oregon Department of Transportation to assess a per-mile charge for each volunteer driver, according to its website at MyOreGo.org.

"Oregon's per-mile usage charge law establishes a funding model where drivers of all vehicle types pay their fair share for upkeep of our road network using Oregon's long tradition of 'user pays,'" the website said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745 7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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