Committee examines fuel tax again

CASPER — A fuel tax increase is again being considered by the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee to address the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s structural funding deficit.

During its first meeting of the interim Wednesday at Casper College, the committee decided to revisit and rework House Bill 26, a bill that would increase the state’s fuel tax from 24 cents to 33 cents a gallon for both gasoline and diesel fuels. Despite receiving support from the House’s Appropriations and Transportation committees, the bill was not considered by the House or Senate during this year’s session in March.

The fuel tax increase, as presented earlier this year, would generate an additional $61.47 million with $40.24 million going to the state highways as managed by WYDOT. According to estimates provided last year, the agency — which is funded through the state’s general fund — is currently facing a funding shortfall of roughly $354 million a year, including $103 million less than what is needed to preserve the state’s roads and bridges.

Putting off the problem, and not addressing needed infrastructure fixes, is not an option, according to WYDOT Chief Financial Officer Dennis Byrne.

“You can spend a dollar in preventative maintenance now or you can wait and it’s going to cost you $4 to $8 later,” Byrne said. “So it is important that road maintenance is conducted, and it’s conducted timely.”

Although the bill received little legislative support this session, speakers before the committee affirmed their support for continued discussion on the issue, with many saying it was the best way to address a systemic funding shortage in the Wyoming Department of Transportation budget.

“We think that fuel tax is the best method we have at this point to address budgetary concerns,” said Daren Wingard, vice president of associate relations with the C.R. England trucking company. “Of course, none of us want to pay more in taxes. But we do understand that…we need to help pay for the infrastructure, whether it’s in Wyoming or other states around the country.”

Mark Larson, executive vice president of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association, agreed.

“Fuel tax is still the best game in town,” Larson said. “…We’re just suggesting the committee revisit the fuel tax again. I know it’s a red herring for some. But we already have the system in place, and we have the capacity to collect it.”

Currently, Wyoming is ranked 33rd in gasoline tax and 34th in diesel tax, according to the American Petroleum Institute, and the state has lower fuel taxes than every surrounding state, with the exception of Colorado, which is at 22 cents per gallon.

The fuel tax bill was one of a handful of proposed WYDOT funding solutions considered by the Legislature this spring. Others included the institution of a road usage charge, which would have generated $82.85 million annually for the highway fund, and another bill creating a highway tolling program for Interstate 80. The road use charge was not considered for introduction in the House. The highway tolling program passed the Senate but died in the House Transportation Committee without receiving consideration.

The members of the transportation committee did not express any interest in reviving the road usage charge or tolling program discussions.

The Legislature can’t keep kicking the can down the road, Sen. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, said. Pappas said he hopes the fuel tax discussion will gain some traction this year.

“We didn’t do anything this last year with the RUC (road usage charge), and we didn’t do anything with the I-80 tolling, and we didn’t pass the fuel tax this last year,” Pappas said. “We’re just kicking the can down the road for funds for WYDOT. I am in favor of bringing back a tax bill at least…I think we’ve heard from everybody that they prefer that over everything else, and I do want to see that.”