Users should pay fair share for our state's good roads

By the Herald editorial staff

It's expensive to drive a car. Besides the cost of the car itself, you have to register it, buy gas and insurance, plus replace the tires and oil now and again.

With that in mind, few drivers are likely to welcome the idea of paying tolls to use the roads.

The fact is, we already pay to use the roads. Mostly in gas taxes.

Although it's not popular with gas buyers to have one of the highest gas taxes in the country, it's always been a fairly equitable way to pay for roads. Or at least it was when gasoline users were the only ones using the roadways.

The more miles you drove, the more gas you were buying. It was one way to get the people who use the service to pay for the service.

Well, cars are more fuel efficient these days, which may be great for the environment but not for maintaining public highways. Owners of electric cars and hybrids, of course, contribute little or nothing.

The upshot is an ever-increasing gap between revenues and what the state Department of Transportation estimates it needs to keep roads safe and traffic flowing.

The shortfall is expected to be $1 billion over the next 16 years. If it goes the way of most estimated shortfalls, the actual number will be higher.

The state's solution? Raise more money. Tolls. Fees. That kind of thing. That always seems to be the easy out.

But here's another idea. What about improving efficiency?

To be fair, the DOT has done a pretty good job adopting money-saving initiatives identified by state Auditor BrianSonntag's team, but there's no doubt more could be done.

Are there enough savings on the table to make up the $1 billion expected shortfall? Not likely.

One suggestion for raising funds is to charge a $100 fee for electric cars. At first glance that seems a little punitive -- like punishing someone for trying to do the right thing.

People who purchase electric and hybrid cars already are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, and they're paying extra to do so.

But they're also saving money in fuel costs.

And they are still using the roads. It's reasonable for them to share in funding the roads.

Tolls at least distribute the cost of a road fairly among the users of the road -- as long as the tolls raised on a certain piece of road are dedicated to improvements in that same vicinity.

That would be an improvement over the uneven distribution of gas taxes. Franklin County gets just 55 cents for each dollar paid out. Benton County receives 65 cents per dollar.

Some money comes tothe state by taxing a vehicle based on how heavy it is. The idea being that a heavier vehicle tears up the road more than a light one. That also seems fair.

Everyone is in favor of good roads. We benefit greatly by being able to move people and goods in and out of the Mid-Columbia efficiently.

A reliable transportation network comes with a cost. We ought to figure out the fairest way to pay the bill, even if that means an extra fee on electric cars or tolls on some bridges and roads.