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Roads Panel Weighs Raising Gas Tax

By Trip Jennings
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— Increasing New Mexico's 17-cent gasoline tax by 6 percent a year— or about 1.3 cents a year for the first decade— could go a long way toward building and repairing the state's roadways, leaders of a highway construction task force said Thursday.
    Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and state Transportation Commission Chairman Johnny Cope head up a group looking for ways to pump extra money into the state's financially troubled highway construction programs. They both said they like the idea of automatically raising the gasoline tax each year.
    Each additional penny to the tax would generate roughly $6.8 million a year for spending on state roads.
    A second revenue-raising idea has also caught their fancy, the task force leaders said: a new state fee of an undetermined amount on vehicles based on weight.
    Heavier vehicles, which cause more wear and tear on roadways, would come in for higher fees than lighter vehicles.
    "I'm going to push for the maintenance fee," Lundstrom said.
    The co-leaders' comments came in advance of next week's expected debate by the 14-member task force on short-term recommendations to the Legislature and Gov. Bill Richardson.
    Bumping up the state gasoline tax annually and the proposed "maintenance" fee are just two of nearly 10 ideas the task force is thinking about recommending as short-term fixes.
    Some estimates are that New Mexico is already half a billion dollars short of money for dozens of highway construction projects around the state, although state Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught said the exact figure is unknown.
    The short-term fixes, as well as a few ideas characterized as longer-term solutions, could help adequately fund the highway construction programs.
    Other possible short-term fixes coming up for debate next week include:
  • Dedicate all of the state's motor vehicle excise tax annual proceeds— $122 million a year— to the state road fund. The money now goes to the general fund.
  • Dedicate to the road fund all gross receipt taxes from highway contractors hired to complete state transportation projects. Those tax dollars now go to the state general fund.
  • Improve compliance with the state's existing weight-distance tax and trip tax on commercial trucking, which is estimated to bring in $19 million.
  • Give authority to regional districts to use local gross receipt tax dollars on highway construction projects. Those tax dollars can be spent on public transit projects but not highway construction, said Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid Region Council of Governments.
  • Earmark part of the annual revenues dedicated to brick-and-mortar projects across the state to highway construction projects.
  • Tolls in the form of new toll facilities or truck-only lanes. It was unclear from a draft report how much extra revenue would come in from tolls.
        There was not much discussion of tolls during Thursday's meeting.
        Faught said whatever proposals the task force recommends will likely receive a skeptical hearing from state lawmakers and the public unless task force members and the state transportation department explain why these changes are needed.
        "I just think it will be difficult to pass anything without doing a great deal of educating," Faught said.
        The looming financial crisis is the result of what some officials have called a "perfect storm" of factors.
        The state's share of the operating costs for the Rail Runner commuter train could rise soon, and some legislators fear the train costs could compete with roads for money.
        Currently, roughly $8 million of the $9.5 million of Rail Runner's annual operating costs are paid for by federal funds. The federal funding for the train runs out in fiscal 2009, just as the train's operating costs may increase to $20 million a year. Faught has said the state will seek more federal funding to cover some of those costs.
        The state needs to make up an additional $75 million in federal funding that hasn't come through for Rail Runner construction and start-up costs.
        Soaring inflation in construction costs is another factor.
        Inflation of at least 28 percent in the cost of materials for highway construction, particularly the oil-based products needed to make asphalt, has wreaked havoc with highway construction projects.
        Meanwhile, fewer federal dollars overall are coming in for New Mexico highway construction.