Iowa Ideas 2018
September 20 - 21 | Cedar Rapids

Iowa Ideas is a nonpartisan, statewide learning experience designed to explore the key questions and big ideas that will shape the future of Iowa.

Created by The Gazette, Iowa Ideas consists of in-depth, solutions-focused journalism and events. Engaged citizens, community advocates and industry leaders are invited to join us.

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Viability of gas tax as transportation infrastructure revenue source questioned

Tax generates about $215 million per year

    Photo illustration for Iowa Ideas magazine. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
    Transportation
    Oct 20, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    The two-year-old, 10-cent increase in Iowa’s motor fuel tax is helping the state and local governments address challenges on their transportation systems, but an Iowa Ideas panel cautioned that it alone won’t solve changing transportation needs.

    That increase, which generates about $215 million of the $1.5 billion a year in road use tax funds, “just scratched the surface and just kind of gets things to where they need to be,” Josh Byrnes, general manager of Osage Municipal Utilities, said during a discussion on how to meet Iowa’s future transportation needs.

    Byrnes led the charge for the gas tax increase while chairman of the Iowa House Transportation Committee.

    Even with the additional revenue, Scott Newhard, vice president for public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, said it won’t be enough to fix all problems. Referring to the D grade Iowa’s bridges received on the American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card, Newhard said that even if all of the bridges on the state system could be upgraded, “we’d still be No. 2 in the country in terms of deficient bridges because of the numbers on the county system.”

    But those bridges cannot be ignored, explained Aaron Granquist of HR Green in Cedar Rapids and immediate past president of the Iowa section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, “because that’s the start of the economic chain of getting grain to market.”

    Stuart Anderson, director of planning, programming and modal division of the Iowa Department of Transportation, doubts all of the structurally deficient bridges on the county road system ever will be fixed. That would require more than $1.5 billion a year.

    He also warned that as the DOT’s chief revenue source, the motor fuel tax is probably not viable in the long term as the number of electric vehicles increases and all vehicles, regardless of their fuel source, become more efficient.

    It’s not clear what will pick up the slack if the fuel tax doesn’t generate enough revenue. Newhard said it’s pretty clear Iowans don’t like tolls. Anderson said a tax-per-mile approach might be viable. It’s been tested by the University of Iowa in a number of states, including Iowa.

    “When you see the things Iowans don’t want, these things we did — raising the motor fuel tax and registration fees — look more attractive,” Newhard said.

    From the Iowa Ideas magazine: Our full, in-depth report on Iowa's roads and bridges: Too many roads, not enough money?

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