FROM THE FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER: As gas tax dries up, how to fund highways?

Posted October 8

Editor’s Note: This editorial originally appeared in The Fayetteville Observer, where Tim White is the editorial page editor.

We don’t get to report as often as we’d like about government leaders who can see beyond the next election. But fortunately, we have some.

State Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon is one of them. His position is appointed by the governor, but Trogdon is looking out beyond Roy Cooper’s 2020 campaign (if he chooses to run). The secretary is looking at the future of transportation and he’s seeing big problems with maintaining our existing roads and building new ones.

Fully half of North Carolina’s transportation funds are replenished with revenue from motor-fuel taxes. The funding adds up to $1.85 billion a year. That’s a lot of pavement, with a few new bridges tossed in. But as Trogdon pointed out last week to a state House of Representatives committee looking into long-term transportation funding, motor fuels are going to be a relic of the past, and the transition to other power sources — primarily electricity, but hydrogen may play a role too — has already begun.

First came the hybrids a few years ago, and now we’re seeing increasing numbers of vehicles powered solely by electricity.

General Motors announced last week two electric vehicle lines that the company will produce in the coming 18 months. GM said it will have more than 20 electric or hydrogen-cell vehicles on the roads by 2023. We expect other manufacturers will follow with similar plans. As technology creates longer-lasting batteries for electric vehicles, the public will speed its adoption of the cars — and soon, light trucks too.

We’ll know the transition is complete when NASCAR unveils a race series for electric vehicles. A new Formula E racing series debuted this summer. It features open-wheeled electric-powered race cars that look like Formula 1 or Indy racers. The cars can hit speeds of 140 mph on city streets. Battery life forces the racers to switch cars midway through the race. But as battery technology improves, that may be only a short-term strategy.

The same is true for our highways. Electric rates are comparatively low and may stay that way, thanks to the power industry’s switch to natural gas and its increasing embrace of solar and wind power. Once electric cars can routinely drive more than 200 miles on a single charge — an advance that isn’t far away — we can expect a broad consumer embrace of the technology. The Chevy Bolt is already there. So is the still-scarce Tesla Model 3. Others are closing in fast.

And every time someone buys one of them, our highway funds lose money. And yet, our highway needs will only grow. Our state’s population is among the fastest-growing in the country and that trend doesn’t appear to have an expiration date. For all our failings, this is still a great place to live. Expanded highway networks will be essential

But how do we pay for them? We could consider more tolls, but there will be intense political pressure against them — remember the furor over a proposal to turn I-95 into a toll road? We still think there’s a case for tolling roads whose users are more from out of state. But the better solution for North Carolina drivers is to gradually replace the fuel tax with a highway use tax that’s based on the miles driven every year.  That could be accomplished by the annual recording of odometer readings when a car is inspected. Or there likely is — or will be — a high-tech answer.

Trogdon didn’t give the committee any firm suggestions this week, except this one: “The truth is we need to plan. We know it’s going to happen.”

It’s already is happening. Those new funding sources need to arrive really soon.


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  • Joe Eastland Oct 8, 5:35 p.m.
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    Now your being unfair. Governmen works great at working new revenue sources. Just look at all the great things and money the lottery has brought our schools. Oh wait...

  • Norman Lewis Oct 8, 3:39 p.m.
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    I know a politician never met a tax he/she didn't like but I was surprised by the Chutzpah for even suggesting a road use tax. So North Carolina residents either submit to blindly paying for each mile we drive overall or is the suggestion to submit a detailed log of each in-state mile driven? North Carolina use to be the "good roads state" but decades of Highway Trust fund banditry by the Democratically controlled Legislature left us with nothing but promises. How do we know the next round of tax hikes or worse "fees" will not be misspent on political pet projects? Alternative fuel vehicles are a tiny fraction of the cars on the road so I think the scare tactic of lowered revenues is just a smoke screen to jack taxes up.

  • Joe Eastland Oct 8, 2:24 p.m.
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    The NC DOT is corrupt. In Brunswick County for example, new 2 lane roads were built in the Calabash area to serve property owned by once DOT member and local developer Odell Williamson. NO one lived on those roads. The sole purpose of those roads was to give Williamson access to property he owned so it could be developed. To this day, traffic on those roads is almost non-existent except for patrons playing one of two golf courses the late Mr. Williamson has on that road.

    I can't imagine this is the ONLY such corruption by the NC DOT. It's a good ole boy network of scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Time for a complete overhaul!

  • Jim Frei Oct 8, 1:34 p.m.
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    NC has no county-funded roads unlike VA and SC for example. NC has the 2nd largest state-maintained road system in the US. Only TX has more lane miles. One problem in NC is that the legislators have stolen money from the Highway Fund to replenish the General Fund.

  • Jim Bradshaw Oct 8, 1:02 p.m.
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    NC has one of the highest fuel taxes of similar size states and particularly our neighbor states. How about making road construction/bridge construction, etc. more cost efficient. Some road construction goes beyond the "expected' completion date by almost a year and is always over budget. How about penalizing the slow construction companies when they don't meet deadlines?

  • Cnc Stone Oct 8, 12:21 p.m.
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    Gas tax dries up ? What a out an out lie gas tax’s in this state are out of control & the millions generated must go in some ones pocket cause they sure don’t go in the roads or any thing else I can see!

  • Andrew Stephenson Oct 8, 12:20 p.m.
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    Keep in mind, we about 60% more roads as SC. 225k vs 140k.

  • William Sherman Oct 8, 12:15 p.m.
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    Funny thing about nc gas tax, other relevant taxes--state of South Carolina has noticeably LOWER highway taxes and yet manages to build and maintain better roads. A lesson perhaps for both editorial writers and the NC legislature.

  • Jim Frei Oct 8, 11:41 a.m.
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    If our legislators were truly smart statesmen, the gas tax would have been raised a nickle a year since 2010.

  • Jeffrey Derry Oct 8, 9:43 a.m.
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    As gas taxes dry up? Complete nonsense the State awash in gas taxes, the key question is are they wise stewards with the money they take from us? California continues to raise gas taxes and plunder over and over their citizens.