DALLAS — A majority of Arkansans oppose an increase in the state gasoline tax that could fund road maintenance projects that were cancelled by a shortfall in dedicated revenues, according to a new poll from an anti-tax group.
The Arkansas Good Roads Foundation has called for a 10 cent increase in each of the state gasoline tax of 21.8 cents per gallon and the diesel tax of 22.8 cents to cover the short-term gap, but the proposal was nixed by 64% of the 500 voters polled by Public Opinion Strategies for Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas in late September.
The survey found that 45% of the Arkansas voters strongly opposed the gasoline tax increase with 19% somewhat opposed. The proposed increase was supported by only 35% of the voters, with 18% saying they strongly supported it.
The foundation recommended the increased fuel taxes to a state highway revenue panel after Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, said in August that $110 million of additional funding must be found within the next 12 months.
The 20-member Governor's Working Group on Highway Funding created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson earlier this year is looking at how to reduce the gap between the $3.6 billion of state and federal highway funding expected to be obtained over the next 10 years and the state's $20.4 billion of identified projects. The panel voted this summer to focus on short-term revenue needs when it prepares its report, which is to be submitted to Hutchinson by Dec. 15.
The additional $110 million would allow Arkansas to reinstate road projects cancelled over uncertainty of reimbursements from the faltering Highway Trust Fund and provide the state match for additional federal funding over the next two years, Bennett said.
The proposed fuels tax boost would generate $125 million per year for state transportation projects, said Craig Douglass, executive director of the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation.
"We recognize there is a narrow path to immediate and significant revenue," Douglass said. "The best option right now is to increase the motor fuel tax on gasoline and diesel."
The increased taxes would generate almost $200 million per year, but 36.5% of state fuel tax revenues are diverted to counties and cities for local road projects.
David Ray, director of AFP-Arkansas, said state lawmakers should be wary of raising the gasoline tax because half of those surveyed said they would be less likely to support a legislator who voted for a fuel tax increase, while only 14% said they would be more supportive.
A higher gasoline tax was opposed by 75% of the Republicans surveyed, 53% of Democrats, and 62% of independents.
There are other revenue options that should be considered before raising the gasoline tax, Ray said.
"There's over $170 million of highway funding per year that goes to cities and counties and has almost zero transparency attached to it," he said. "The Legislature could adjust the highway funding formula to reflect actual vehicle miles traveled, which would send more money to the highway department.
"There's no shortage of ideas that don't involve raising the gas or diesel tax," Ray said.
Oregon had expected to sign up 5,000 motorists for its initial vehicle-miles-traveled road fee program, but so far only about 900 drivers have enrolled in the state's OreGO effort since it became operational on July 1.
Participating motorists pay 1.5 cents per mile as determined by an on-board GPS device and receive a credit for state gasoline tax of 30 cents per gallon. The program is designed to be break-even for vehicles that get 20 miles per gallon.
Most of the 900 participants are from the Portland area, according to the latest report from the Oregon Department of Transportation, and several counties in western portion of the state have no signups.
A campaign is under way to attract corporate fleet operators into the VMT program, said ODOT spokesman Tom Fuller.