The most recent Arizona Town Hall, attended by experts and interested persons from all over the state, just wrapped up in Tucson last week. The official title was “Transportation and Arizona” but the real issue that surfaced was leadership.
Reliable transportation systems are the key to our economic prosperity. We stand at the cusp of being able to grow our economy in unprecedented ways thanks to our location, climate and entrepreneurial talent.
But it will take courageous, forward-thinking leaders for us to truly make this happen. It will take leaders who are willing to make investments in our future. It will take leaders who seek solutions that fund the results we want, regardless of politically charged sound bites or influence from outsiders who have no stake in the ultimate outcomes.
Take the gas tax for instance.
Federal and state gas taxes are the leading source of revenue for transportation. Yet, this method of funding transportation systems has not kept up with inflation, rising construction costs and our growing population. In recent years, these taxes have actually been used by our Legislature to pay for things other than transportation related expenses. This source of funding also does not properly account for our desire to lower reliance on gas by encouraging fuel-efficient vehicles.
Fuel-efficient vehicles use less gas and therefore pay far less than other vehicles for their use of roads and, accordingly, their share of repair and maintenance costs. As fuel-efficient vehicles increase, funding for roads decreases proportionally while the usage of roads remains the same. To correct this situation, Arizona Town Hall participants recommended implementation of a use-based revenue model such as a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee that would take the actual use of roads into account.
The implementation of a funding mechanism that takes actual use into account makes sense. It’s been recommended repeatedly by various blue ribbon panels and was one of the recommendations from the 2009 Arizona Town Hall on transportation. So, why hasn’t it happened? Leadership. Or, more appropriately, the lack of it.
Implementation of a VMT tax would be considered a new tax by many even if it allowed for a reduction in the gas tax. For this reason, many elected state leaders won’t even consider it — especially those who have blindly taken a “no new tax” pledge. When we are unable to even talk about changes to government revenue streams that fund essential infrastructure growth and improvement, we are suffering from a fundamental absence of responsible governance.
More courageous and solutions-based leadership is not just needed from those who serve in Arizona’s legislature or executive branch, it’s needed from each of us. Ultimately, we choose our elected leaders. In the last election, most Arizonans chose their elected leaders by default — by not voting and by not engaging in the political process. Since we pay taxes from our own wallets, our votes, or lack thereof, have a direct impact on what we end up paying for.
Are the people being elected even listening to us? Are they considering the longer term costs and consequences versus the short-term appeasement of a few who may not even be taking the time to examine the big picture issues?
If we want a transportation system that will thrust Arizona into a more competitive position for attracting new talent, growing new and existing businesses, and creating a more vibrant economy, we need look no further than the report generated by the participants of the 106th Arizona Town Hall. They did the heavy lifting on the planning and revenue policies that will make this vision a reality. Now it’s up to us to ensure we have the collective will and the leadership to make it happen.