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6:28 AM Tue, Nov. 20th

House panel OKs new fee to help pave, repair roads

To help pave and repair state roads, Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, has crafted HB 2166, a measure that would impose a new fee when people register their vehicles. (Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services, file)

To help pave and repair state roads, Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, has crafted HB 2166, a measure that would impose a new fee when people register their vehicles. (Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services, file)

PHOENIX – Unable politically to hike the state gasoline tax to help pave and repair roads, a House panel voted Wednesday to impose a new fee when people register their cars and trucks every year.

HB 2166 would empower the head of the state Department of Transportation to impose a charge that would, when applied to all vehicles, raise enough money to fund the Highway Patrol. Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who crafted the measure, figures it would come out somewhere between $17 and $19 a year.

The 7-1 vote by the House Committee on Transportation and Technology sends the measure to the full House.

Campbell, who chairs the panel, has been beating the drum for years to find additional dollars to not only build new roads, but fix existing ones.

"Nobody enjoys raising taxes, of course not,'' he said. "But you know the condition of the roads and bridges and infrastructure in this state.''

The problem has its roots in the fact that the state's 18-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991, when the average price of a gallon of fuel was $1.14.

Complicating that is that while the number of vehicles on the roads has risen, they are more fuel efficient. So gas tax revenues have not increased as fast as the miles driven.

Hiking the tax has proven politically unacceptable with Gov. Doug Ducey on record in opposition to any adjustment.

What makes matters worse, Campbell said, is that up to $120 million a year of gas taxes and vehicle registration fees have been siphoned off to fund the Highway Patrol.

Campbell said that was done to help balance the budget during the Great Recession. He said the diversion should no longer be necessary given the improvement in the economy, yet it continues.

What HB 2166 would do, Campbell said, is ensure a dedicated source of dollars to fund the Highway Patrol, freeing up those dollars for the purpose he believes they are being collected: road repairs.

Robert Bulechek, an energy efficiency analyst from Tucson, said Campbell has the right goal.

“We need to raise revenues for road maintenance,'' he told lawmakers. "The deferred maintenance alone in Pima County runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

But Bulechek said Campbell was approaching the idea all wrong. He said any fees should be based on the use of the roads and the pollution produced – the kind of thing reflected in a gasoline tax – rather than a flat fee.

Campbell's measure also is written to phase out the special extra-low vehicle registration fee owed by those who have purchased alternative fuel vehicles that use the same roads as those who power their cars and trucks with gasoline and diesel.

“That's not fair,” he said.

That provision, however, drew concern from Matt Ligouri, lobbyist for Southwest Gas Corp.

He said many companies have made large investments in purchasing vehicles that can be fueled using compressed natural gas. Ligouri said they were counting on the lower registration fees to offset both the higher cost of CNG-fueled vehicles as well as the capital costs of installing the equipment to fuel them up.

Daniel Scarpinato, the governor's press aide, said the governor for the moment has no position on Campbell's new fee, saying his boss would have to study the issue further.

The special fee is just one way Campbell is proposing to help deal with the shortfall in road construction and repair funds. He also is the sponsor of HB 2165, which would allow county supervisors to ask voters to levy a sales tax of 1 percent for their own needs.