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Shortage of Road Repair Cash Leads to Fees

Thu April 07, 2011 - West Edition

HONOLULU (AP) Hawaii drivers are being asked to pay about $50 more per vehicle on average annually to meet a shortfall in funds to repair the state’s potholed roads, a problem of the government’s own making.

Lawmakers depleted highway funds over the years, taking $145 million that was meant to be used for transportation to pay for other programs. Only $17 million was left in February for road repairs, a relatively small amount compared to the $86 million annually the Department of Transportation said it needs.

Even when it became clear money was running short, state vehicle fees weren’t raised. They haven’t been increased since 1991. The result is legislators are proposing that vehicle registration fees jump from $25 to $45 a year, and weight fees would approximately double, with the heaviest vehicles paying the highest rates.

“Something has to be done, and something has to be done now, and that’s why we’re asking for these fees,” said Department of Transportation spokesman Dan Meisenzahl. “No one wants to raise taxes, but this is the hand we’re dealt, and this is what we’re trying to do.”

But Sen. Sam Slom said drivers, many of whom already pay between $200 and $300 a year in fees, oppose the higher charges because lawmakers’ past actions have shown there’s no guarantee the funds will go toward road repairs.

“It’s a further reminder of government not keeping its commitment, not keeping its promise, and not being able to do the simplest things,” said Slom, R-Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai. “If you can’t do the roads, how can you do education?”

Highway funds were last raided by the Legislature in 2003, Meisenzahl said. Lawmakers dipped into the funds several times during the eight years beforehand — when there was at times more than $100 million saved up — cumulatively using the $145 million taken for just about any state government purpose but roads.

The Department of Transportation is entirely funded by user fees and federal money, and it doesn’t receive any general state taxes collected, Meisenzahl said.

State residents shouldn’t fear that their vehicle fees would be put to any purpose but roads in the foreseeable future, said House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Souki.

“We cannot look at what has happened in the past. We need to look at the future and the present,” said Souki, D-Waihee-Wailuku. “We have roads that need to be repaired, we have bridges that need to be repaired, we have highways to be made.”

Of course, it’s always possible that at some point in the future, if highway funds replenish themselves, lawmakers would again be tempted to use them to help balance the budget. The new fees would raise a combined $56 million a year for paving, repairs, drainage, traffic signs, guardrails, lighting, sidewalks, landscaping and storm cleanup on nearly 2,500 miles of state roads.

The money collected would be added to the $27 million the DOT is seeking to use in each of the next two years for road maintenance.

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