November 2013 Flagstaff Business News column

Seeking Solutions for Bridging Transportation Funding Divide

By Cynthia Seelhammer
Coconino County Manager

What county services do our taxpayers value most? In late 2011, Coconino County asked that question and learned that while public safety and criminal justice was the second-highest priority by polled residents, it was outranked by the desire for properly maintained roads.

Roads are what County taxpayers value the most. It’s easy to see why. We all use the roads every day, in our work, business and personal lives.

Our transportation infrastructure is essential to promoting the economic vitality of our communities and local industries. Should our roads become impassable or closed due to failure – such as US 89, which was closed in 2010 due to flooding from the Schultz Fire burn area and in February by a landslide south of Page – it could prove difficult to deliver and move sufficient goods and supplies throughout our region.

Good, well-maintained roadways are also critically important for public safety. Without maintained roads, it could take sheriff’s deputies, an ambulance or fire truck longer to respond to emergencies. If response times begin to climb, that could negatively impact quality of life and insurance rates for our residents.

Roads also provide access to the places that tourists want visit. We are the home of the Grand Canyon, multiple national forests and parks, an international training ground for the world’s best athletes and Olympians.

Those of us most familiar with the 930 miles of roadways the County maintains have been working hard to stretch the funds we have for roads. The costs are now outpacing available funding. However, this isn’t a localized issue. The same is true throughout our state and across our country.

Nationally, a drop in federal revenue to cities and counties has caused budget shortfalls that threaten the integrity of our local highway and transportation systems. Part of the issue is that tax revenue generated by a federal excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuels has failed to keep up with inflation. Also, vehicles today are designed to travel farther between fill-ups, meaning that they use less gas while using the roads more than ever before. The fuel tax revenues are not keeping up.

In fact, 22 years have passed since the fuel excise tax was last increased. While the costs to maintain our current infrastructure have skyrocketed over two decades, available funding has remained flat or declined.

Arizona counties have also seen less state revenue over time from the Highway User Revenue Fund, or HURF. HURF relies on fuel taxes at the pump, motor carrier fees, vehicle license taxes and other miscellaneous fees as a source of revenue. That revenue is then distributed to cities, towns, counties and the State Highway Fund.

However, because of the Great Recession of 2008, and a slow economic recovery, Arizona counties saw sharp declines in HURF revenue as the State reallocated funding to state departments. Coconino County saw more than a 25-percent decrease in HURF dollars to about $8 million in 2012. At the peak in FY 2007, the County received $10.7 million.

It’s a transportation budget gap that had been growing over decades. National and local gasoline taxes have not kept up with inflation or been adjusted to account for vehicles with improving gas mileage.

If current trajectory continues, the County will face a multimillion-dollar financial deficit for transportation projects and infrastructure into the near future unless additional funding is found.

An inventory of county roadways found that between 25 and 35 percent of paved County and U.S. Forest Service roads are in severe or poor condition. Driving on such surfaces cost Arizona motorists about $887 million per year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs of about $205 per motorist.

As you can likely see, this is a community issue that needs a community solution.

To help provide the County and its leaders with possible options to solve this funding issue, the County is turning to our residents and area stakeholders.

Last month, the County began meeting with stakeholders, including members of the business community, on our new Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Transportation.

Over a three-month period, the Committee will be charged with forming a recommendation to be considered by the Coconino County Board of Supervisors. I look forward to sharing more information about this important issue in the months to come.

Cynthia Seelhammer serves as Coconino County manager. This column was submitted and likely ran in the November edition of the Flagstaff Business News.