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The Journal Gazette

December 01, 2016 1:02 AM

Road task force talks gas tax, tolls

Committee hears from public as it preps final report

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Talk of tolling Indiana’s highways and raising gas taxes highlighted the penultimate meeting of a state roads panel Wednesday.

The Funding Indiana’s Roads for a Stronger, Safer Tomorrow Task Force took public testimony as they work to provide recommendations to the legislature on a long-term, sustainable funding program for roads and bridges.

A final report will be voted on at a Dec. 15 meeting.

Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, House transportation chairman, said the committee needs to focus on three distinct things.

First, he said, is the inflation effects of the fuel tax and the ongoing loss of purchasing power. Second is that cars are more fuel efficient and some cars no longer even use fuel. Third is to look at tolling “for the folks who drive through and don’t stop for so much as a Snickers bar.”

Steve Davidson, a consulting engineer speaking on behalf of the industry, encouraged those on the committee to consider tolling all of Indiana’s interstates – particularly I-65 and I-70.

He said it makes sense from a user-fee perspective and also from the state perspective of revenue to maintain an asset.

Davidson said under federal rules the state can toll an existing highway if a lane is added and a bridge is upgraded or replaced. There are some limitations on where money from the tolls can then be spent, though.

He said it would take at least three or four years before tolls would be in place.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said that would allow the public to see the improvement being made in advance of paying the tolls.

There is some concern about costs of diversion –people moving to other local roads to avoid tolls – but INDOT Commis­sion­­er Bran­­dye Hendrickson said a more in-depth study would have to be done.

Another idea the panel is considering is raising the state gas tax and indexing it to inflation.

Indiana’s state gas tax is 18 cents and hasn’t been raised since 2003. Fifteen states haven’t raised their gas tax in 20 years. There also is a federal gas tax, and Hoosiers pay a sales tax on gasoline as well. All of the gas tax money goes to roads but only a small portion of the sales tax revenue does.

If lawmakers tie the tax to inflation or the consumer price index it likely would rise gradually every year with little notice and fewer painful political votes.

But Maureen Ferguson, executive director of the Indiana Petroleum Council, testified against this maneuver.

She said specifically it makes the tax less transparent to the public and that it’s contrary to the fiscal restraint the state has shown in budget matters.

“I know it’s easier and politically expedient, but I ask you to stop and think about it,” Ferguson said. “To make it easy is the opposite of what we should be doing.”

nkelly@jg.net