Drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles might be helping the air and their wallets at the gas pump, but they are not helping to maintain the roads they use, experts say. 

As more of the vehicles take to the road, driving farther with less need to buy gasoline, a significant source of funding for road and bridge maintenance is suffering, state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said. 

Concurrently, costs for maintenance have steadily climbed, widening the gap between dollars generated and dollars needed, Luechtefeld said. 

“The costs have just skyrocketed on what it costs to build roads or to even fix roads,” he said. “And the amount of money coming into the Motor Fuel Tax is pretty flat.” 

It also does not help that a significant portion of Illinois highway or road revenues are frequently diverted to pay other bills, he added. 

Highway funding at the state level is generated through a flat Motor Fuel Tax of 19 cents a gallon and a $99 annual license plate fee and related vehicle charges. 

At a growth of 1 percent to 2 percent a year, the funding sources have not kept pace with inflation, observes the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, consisting in part of county highway engineers. 

The Motor Fuel Tax, the group says, has remained unchanged since 1990. License fees were increased in 2010. A sales tax is also applied to gasoline purchases, but those revenues go into the state’s general fund. 

As a result, local counties and townships are falling behind in road and bridge repairs, and many are considering converting oil and chip roads to gravel, engineers say. 

According to the Coalition, one in 12 Illinois bridges are structurally deficient. In 2012 the average county reported the level of service on their highway system declined 11 percent since 2000, the Illinois Association of County Engineers reports. 

“If nothing is done, by 2018 one in every three miles of roadway will be in unacceptable condition, (and) 12 percent of bridges will be in unacceptable condition,” TFIC maintains. 

Fuel efficiency is one factor. 

Records from the Illinois Department of Revenue show Illinois motorists in 2012 pumped 4,642,456,884 gallons of gasoline and gasohol. That use dropped to 4,623,337,638 last year. 

The trend appears to be on par for 2014. For instance, in January motorists pumped 360,502,684 gallons, compared to 366,591,108 the same month last year and 377,857,801 in January 2012. The declines were similar for February each of those years. Usage in March and April this year were slightly higher during the same months in either 2012 or 2013, but not both years. 

The problem is consistent across the country, impacting federal gas tax receipts that are filtered to the states for highway repairs. 

Considering both fuel efficiency and rising costs, the purchasing power of the federal gas tax has dropped 28 percent since 1997, ITEP reports. 

Costs contribute more to the funding shortfall, but fuel-efficiency remains a significant factor, the organization maintains. 

“Improved vehicle fuel-efficiency is undoubtedly a positive development for the environment, America’s energy independence, and drivers’ pocketbooks, but it is also a challenge for the nation’s poorly designed gas tax,” ITEP declares on its website. 

Since 1997, when the federal government began using all gas tax revenues for transportation projects, the average fuel-efficiency of a passenger vehicle on America’s roads increased by 1.7 miles per gallon — from 19.7 to 21.4 mpg, ITEP says. 

For a vehicle with a 15 gallon gas tank, the improved mileage means that the average driver is able to wear down the roadways with an extra 25 miles of driving before they have to refuel. Multiply that by 230 million vehicles, and across the span of a year the difference is the equivalent of almost 203 billion tax-free miles of travel on America’s road, ITEP concludes. 

For the nation, Congress in the last five years has transferred more than $53 billion from the deficit-ridden general fund to make up for gas tax receipts in the transportation fund, ITEP added. An additional $15 billion will be needed next year to maintain current funding levels. 

While the Illinois Coalition last year called for abolishing Motor Fuel Tax and replacing it with a 9.5 percent tax on wholesale fuel prices, the proposal hit a brick wall of criticism, the group concedes. 

“The Coalition heard from taxpayers, policymakers and members of the media that this plan had too little positive effect on the transportation network, increased the cost of gas by too much, and did too little to reduce ‘diversions,’” it said in April while calling for new changes. 

A new proposal seeks to eliminate diversions: Money intended for roads and bridges but used to pay other bills, a critical first step, Luechtefeld said. Any tax hike would be a tough sale to put it mildly, especially along the state’s border too easily crossed to buy cheaper gas and, while doing so, shopping for other taxable merchandise, he added. 

“Over the years state legislators have raided the road fund,” Luechtefeld said. “We should not have diversions. I think the state should discontinue that. And you will have to develop some sort of revenue. What that is, I don’t know.”

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