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Editorial: States looking for answers on rising road costs

Sep. 13, 2013 @ 12:01 AM

Driving is not cheap.

Add up the cost of car payments, gas, insurance, tolls, licenses, parking and repairs, and many families spend more on driving than they do on health care or taxes. Technological advances are making many vehicles more fuel efficient and safer, but one cost of that private transportation seems sure to rise -- the roads.

Every state in the union is facing mounting highway needs and road maintenance costs, even before they look at billions in requests for new roads or improvements. West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky are no exceptions.

West Virginia's Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has a Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways looking at ways to generate $1.1 billion to pay for pressing infrastructure needs.

Kentucky faces a road and bridge maintenance backlog of at least $1.6 billion, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. Ohio, with one of the busiest interstate systems in the country, finds that even rising gas tax revenues can't keep up with the wear and tear on its highways.

While gas taxes and other motorist fees have never paid the full cost of road construction and maintenance, they once contributed about 70 percent. But over the years, gas taxes and fees have carried less of the load, creating fundamental questions about how to maintain and expand the nation's highway system.

Funds are tight at the federal level, as well. Congress will be struggling to maintain current spending levels in its six-year transportation spending plan that must be reauthorized by 2014. Increasingly, the view from Washington seems to be that states are going to have to do more of the heavy lifting on their highway and infrastructure needs.

So, developing new local initiatives for road funding will be critical. But be aware, most of the strategies are aimed at the driving public.

Tomblin's commission is finalizing its recommendations, and some of the suggestions are likely to include toll increases on the West Virginia Turnpike, higher Division of Motor Vehicles fees and a $200 annual registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles, The Associated Press reported. Some members also suggest generating another $1 billion for road construction by borrowing money through road bonds and repaying that debt by extending the turnpike tolls that are set to end in 2019.

The whole package will be hard to sell, but some of those measures likely will be needed.

For new construction, the state also should look at public-private partnerships that are helping other states move ahead. One of the leaders in that approach is right next door. Virginia already has partnered with developers Transurban Group and Fluor on projects such as the "high occupancy toll" lanes around Washington D.C., where residents pay a toll to drive in the fast lane. The state used a similar approach to build the Pocahontas 895 toll road and bridge below Richmond.

It looks like it is going to take some of those innovative approaches to meet new highway needs.

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