FAIRWAY — No good deed goes unpunished on Kansas roadways.
Or so it seems.
Sunflower State motorists have heeded frequently offered public service announcements to plan ahead, to make fewer trips and to investigate ways of getting better gas mileage.
They’re saving money. The state, in effect, is losing it.
Kansans’ changing eco-thrifty driving habits are causing state motor fuel tax collections to stagnate, threatening to cap the Kansas Department of Transportation’s second largest state revenue source at some $430 million.
But Kansas needs more than that to build and maintain its 141,000 miles of streets and highways. The state will most probably turn to motorists for the money.
Tapping KDOT’s largest revenue source, federal highway funds, doesn’t look promising. KDOT received about $590 million in federal highway funds this year, but expected federal budget cutting makes future amounts less certain.
That leaves state sales tax income, license- and registration-fee money and miscellaneous income, which fill only about a third of the department’s $1.5 billion annual revenue stream.
KDOT next month needs to begin finding ways to make up for the fuel tax revenues it won’t receive. That’s a state law.
H.B. 2455, signed by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in April, requires KDOT to study the long-term effectiveness of relying on fuel tax revenues for highway funding and report back to the Legislature before Jan. 1, 2014.
“What that means is we need to find a way to either supplement gas tax revenue or replace it,” said Steve Swartz, a KDOT information officer.
Any ideas would be welcome, but the department may explore two that have been tried or contemplated in other states, Swartz said.
One idea is to build more toll roads, he said. Proponents like the idea of having highway users pay directly for their roads. But other than the 236-mile Kansas Turnpike, which opened in 1956, that’s a tough sell in Kansas. KDOT as recently as January quashed a proposal for a toll road near Lawrence due to public opposition.
Toll roads work for the Kansas Turnpike, says Mike Johnston, the Kansas Turnpike Authority’s chief executive.
“We don’t worry about motor fuel taxes because we don’t get any of them.” Johnston said.
Or, Kansas could create a new tax based on how many miles vehicles are actually driven on Kansas roads, Swartz at KDOT said.
Minnesota and Oregon are experimenting with such a system now, according to the Mileage Based User Fee Alliance, a Washington, D.C., transportation policy group that supports replacing fuel taxes. But it is not clear how that idea would work in Kansas, said state Rep. Tom Sloan, D-Lawrence, who last session unsuccessfully proposed requiring electric car owners to pay the equivalent of a fuel tax.
“One idea is that you would report your mileage when you paid your property tax,” Sloan said. “I don’t see how that would work in real life.”
Alternately, as Oregon’s transportation department is testing there, mileage-based fees could be based on mileage recorded on a GPS-like device motorists would install on their cars.
“That raises privacy concerns,“ said Mark Robyn, an tax economist at the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington D.C., that advocates lower taxes.
Neither idea is ideal, but both are better than current fuel taxes at spreading highway costs equitably among highway users, Robyn said.
“Motor fuel taxes sometimes are portrayed as user fees, but they are not very good user fees,” he said.
Bob Totten disagrees.
Totten is public information director for the Kansas Contractors Association, whose members build and maintain many of the nearly 141,000 miles of public roads in the state.
Kansas, the nation’s 15th largest state geographically, has built one of the best highway systems in the nation using motor fuel tax money, he said.
Kansas’ total motor fuel taxes are modest, Totten said. It would be appropriate to raise them slightly, or use sales taxes collected on gas, tires, batteries, cars or other transportation expenses, to continue funding Kansas highway programs, he said.
Kansas requires motorists to pay a 24 cents a gallon tax on fuel they buy in the state. But when adding an 18 percent federal tax and some associated sales and other taxes, motorists actually pay 43.4 cents per gallon in taxes, says the American Petroleum Institute, which keeps national statistics on the matter.
The 43.4 cents is higher than in bordering Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma but lower than Nebraska, the Institute said. It also lands almost dead center between the nation’s highest fuel tax load — 69.6 cents in New York — and the lowest, 26.4 cents in Alaska.