What the plan got right

Two comments dominated reactions to the transportation-funding plan House leaders unveiled Wednesday:

“It’s better than I expected.” And:

“I wonder what it’ll look like in the end?”

The best way to think about the House plan to increase spending on roads, bridges and transit by $1 billion a year is as an opening bid in negotiations still under way. Senators expressed skepticism about the way local governments would be affected (so did a number of House members). The governor’s official reaction was notable for its lack of enthusiasm.

Several people wondered why legislators would spend a year talking up the need to spend more on transportation infrastructure, only to settle for a plan that wouldn’t generate enough money to tackle such big, critical projects as reworking the top end of I-285 and adding capacity to interstates outside the region.

All that said, the House plan delivers on a few key principles the bill ought to retain as it evolves.

1. Gas taxes should be spent on transportation. The state currently diverts about $180 million per year in gas taxes to the general fund, where it is spent on all sorts of things besides transportation. The House plan returns that money to its rightful destination.

Local sales taxes on motor fuel, especially when they are collected as SPLOSTs or as E-SPLOSTs for schools, also are too often spent on other things. Cities and school boards in particular are complaining they would lose a revenue source under this plan. Here’s another way to look at it: Some of them have been misusing that revenue source for a long time.

The gas tax is the closest thing we have to a true user fee. Lawmakers at every level of government should treat it — all of it — that way.

2. Gas taxes should be collected as excise taxes, not sales taxes. The reason some of our gas taxes go to the general fund is they are levied as sales taxes on motor fuel, and only excise taxes on motor fuel are constitutionally tabbed for roads and bridges. Converting the entire levy to an excise tax would prevent future lawmakers from siphoning off motor-fuel revenues for other purposes. It also should make for a more predictable revenue stream which can be adjusted more easily to account for inflation and higher fuel efficiency.

3. Transportation is a priority for the state, and the budget should reflect as much. State revenues are rising, and it is entirely appropriate that some of this increase go toward one of the state's top priorities.

That includes the bond portion of the budget, which is how the state funds many capital projects. While these typically are buildings, there's ample reason to include bridges, roads and even transit infrastructure. Note I said transit infrastructure; the most sound use of borrowed money is for capital projects that will deliver benefits for years, not for one-time subsidies for operations.

4. All motorists should contribute to infrastructure, regardless of the type of vehicle they drive. Electric vehicles use the same roads and bridges gas-powered cars and trucks use. They ought to pay into the system.