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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

If The Gas Tax Is 'Dying,' How Will Colorado Fund Transportation?

Jim Hill

It's no secret that America's roads are in trouble. With gasoline prices so low, many lawmakers are saying this is the best time to raise state and federal gas taxes. Those taxes have been the main funding source for road infrastructure for decades.

Raising taxes is never a politically popular move, but Wyoming and Iowa have raised their gas tax in recent years. Other states are seriously considering it. But, it may not be the right solution.

"As a form of revenue that goes long term into the future, the gas tax is a dying tax," said Amy Ford, Communications Director for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Colorado's state gas tax is a consistent 22 cents per gallon, no matter what the price of gasoline. It hasn't been raised since 1993. According to an Inside Energy analysis, if you account for inflation, CDOT is taking in 30 percent less money from gas taxes now than it did in 2000. Increasing the gas tax would help, but the problem is not just inflation -- it's much bigger than that.

"I am the epitome of the challenge we have here in Colorado and really through the country," Amy Ford said from behind the wheel of her Toyota Prius, which her husband converted to a full electric vehicle.

She barely ever buys gas and thus barely ever pays gas taxes at all. Across the country, fuel efficiency is set to only get better, and younger generations are driving fewer miles per person.

MPACT 64, a collection of government leaders representing all 64 Colorado counties, has been polling the public to gauge approval on raising the gas tax by 15 cents per gallon, as well as on other funding options which may be more sustainable. These range from a slight increase to the state sales tax to an idea being studied [.pdf] by 11 western states, where instead of paying a gas tax, the state would track drivers' miles and charge based on that figure. Both Oregon and Colorado are starting pilot projects on that in 2015.

"When we polled that, it's extremely unpopular," said Jim Gunning, the mayor of Lone Tree, Colorado and a member of MPACT 64.

He noted the paltry 24-percent approval rating in Colorado for the so-called "road usage charge."

On the north side of Denver, you'll find a colorful little Mexican restaurant called Casa de Sanchez. The restaurant basically sits in the shadow of Colorado's top road infrastructure priority: the Interstate 70 viaduct. Not only is it a top priority, but at $1.2 billion, its demolition and replacement will stand as the most expensive project CDOT has ever undertaken.

The state plans to fund it with temporary money from the state Legislature and through another strategy which will likely become a lot more common in the future, namely entering into a partnership with a private company to help pay.

Sitting inside Casa de Sanchez, Fareed Ali ate with some of his coworkers during a break from their job repairing home exteriors. They drive a lot and have been relishing recent low gas prices.

"I would say we cut back a good $600 to $1000 a week, maybe," Ali said, adding they are not keen on handing that money back to the government through a higher gas tax.

"I mean of course not," he said.

On the other hand, Ali listened to some of the other infrastructure funding models being discussed by government leaders, and changed his mind.

"Um, I'd probably go for the gas tax, the higher one," he said. "I'd rather just pay at the pump."

Trouble is, that might not be a viable option much longer.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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