Construction work continues on September 7, 2017, as part of the Grant Road Improvement Project. The project involves widening Grant Road between Oracle and Swan road to six lanes of traffic that includes bike lanes.

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star 2017

PHOENIX — Unable politically to raise the state gasoline tax to help build and repair roads, a House panel voted Wednesday to impose a new fee when people register their cars and trucks every year.

House Bill 2166 would empower the director of the Arizona Department of Transportation to impose a charge that would, when applied to all vehicles, raise enough money to fund the highway patrol. That, in turn, would free up money now used to patrol highways to repair roads instead.

The bill doesn’t give a dollar figure, but it is designed to raise at least as much as the current $114 million now spent to fund the highway patrol division of the Department of Public Safety.

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who wrote the measure, figures the vehicle fee would be somewhere from $17 to $19 a year.

The 7-1 vote by the House Committee on Transportation and Technology sends the measure to the full House.

Campbell, who chairs the panel, has been beating the drum for years to find additional money to build new roads and fix existing ones.

“Nobody enjoys raising taxes, of course not,” he said. “But you know the condition of the roads and bridges and infrastructure in this state.”

The problem has its roots in the fact that the state’s 18-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991, when the average price of a gallon of fuel was $1.14.

Complicating that is that while the number of vehicles on the roads has risen, they are more fuel efficient. So gas-tax revenues have not increased as fast as the number of miles driven.

Hiking the tax has proven politically unacceptable, with Gov. Doug Ducey on record as opposing any adjustment.

Making the situation worse, Campbell said, is that up to $120 million a year of gas taxes and vehicle registration fees have been siphoned off to fund the highway patrol.

He said that was done to help balance the budget during the Great Recession.

The diversion should no longer be necessary given the improvement in the economy, yet it continues, he said.

HB 2166 would ensure a dedicated funding source for the highway patrol, freeing up those dollars for the purpose Campbell believes they are being collected: road repairs.

Robert Bulechek, an energy efficiency analyst from Tucson, said Campbell has the right goal.

“We need to raise revenues for road maintenance,” he told lawmakers. “The deferred maintenance alone in Pima County runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

But Bulechek said Campbell is approaching the idea incorrectly.

He said any fees should be based on the use of the roads and the pollution produced —the kind of thing reflected in a gasoline tax — rather than a flat fee.

Campbell’s measure also is written to phase out the special extra-low vehicle registration fee owed by those who have purchased alternative-fuel vehicles, which use the same roads as those who power their cars and trucks with gasoline and diesel.

“That’s not fair,” Bulechek said.

That provision also drew concern from Matt Ligouri, a lobbyist for Southwest Gas Corp.

He said many companies have made large investments in purchasing vehicles that can be fueled using compressed natural gas.

Ligouri said they were counting on the lower registration fees to offset both the higher cost of CNG-fueled vehicles as well as the capital costs of installing the equipment to fuel them.

Daniel Scarpinato, the governor’s press aide, said Ducey for the moment has no position on the new fee proposed by Campbell, saying he would have to study the issue further.