AMES, Iowa — The state must look for cost savings and efficiencies in government before it considers increasing the gas tax to pay for the state's deteriorating roads and bridges, Gov. Terry Branstad said Tuesday.
"These are trying times for many Iowans, and before we ask them to pay a higher fuel tax, we must find more efficient ways to utilize our current resources," Branstad told IowaPolitics.com outside a meeting of the Iowa Transportation Commission, a seven-member board that oversees the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Branstad made his comments right after the Transportation 2020 Citizen Advisory Commission, an 18-member panel assigned by Branstad to assist the state in reviewing the needs and funding for Iowa's roads and bridges, proposed increasing Iowa's gas tax by 8 to 10 cents a gallon. Iowa currently charges a tax of 21 cents a gallon on gasoline, 22.5 cents on diesel and 19 cents on ethanol-blended gasoline.
The governor predicted that the increase in the gas tax, which would generate $184 million to $230 million, won't happen next year.
Instead, he called on Transportation Department Director Paul Trombino III to find administrative savings of about $50 million, or the equivalent of 2 cents of gas tax. He said he'd also like to examine the 1 cent of tax per gallon that's being diverted from the state's Road Use Tax Fund — the main source of funding for Iowa's highways — to clean up leaky underground storage tanks.
"I think we must first examine all opportunities to reduce administrative costs and duplication at all levels of government to make sure that we are good stewards of the tax dollars that we are already receiving," Branstad said. "We must spend the dollars that we receive more efficiently and streamline operations to maximize each dollar."
Examples of such cost savings, he said, could come from reducing duplicate Iowa Transportation Department facilities in the same county.
But Amy Reasner of Cedar Rapids, chairwoman of the Iowa Transportation Commission, said such savings won't be enough to cover the state's $1.6 billion annual shortfall for transportation infrastructure needs, $215 million a year of which is considered "critical."
"I don't believe that there would be any way to use efficiencies to fund all of our critical shortages," she said. "But just as a family who may have more needs than income, sometimes we have to either put off things that are less critical, or try to do some innovation in how we're funding current projects."
Recently retired Transportation Department Director Nancy Richardson, co-chairwoman of the Citizen Advisory Commission, said counties, cities and the state could possibly establish some joint facilities or purchasing agreements to find cost savings. But she also said there's no "$215 million fix."
"Our system is about 50 or 60 years old, and we've been living on someone else's legacy. I don't see the kind of commitment to it that we had back in the '40s and '50s," Richardson said. "Without that, we're going to continue to see roads crumble, bridges have to be closed."
Mike Wentzien, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Association of County Supervisors, is among those backing the proposed increase in the gas tax. County supervisors manage 20,000 bridges and 90,000 miles of road. Some counties have blacktop roads that are in bad shape and are having to be turned back into gravel roads.
"We're turning the clock back, and I don't want to see us go back into the days of the '30s, when we were in mud and we had to get out of it," he said. "It almost seems like without additional funding, that's the direction we're going."
Wentzien said "the time is right" for increasing the gas tax to fix Iowa's roads, which he said is good for economic development and safety.
Richardson said it doesn't take much of a flood for Iowa's roads and highways to be compromised, as they recently were in western Iowa from the Missouri River flooding. It cost almost $50 million to repair and reopen those roads, although most of that money will be reimbursed by the federal government.
Despite those needs, Richardson predicted that a gas tax increase will face an uphill battle in the Iowa Legislature.
"I think it's going to be tough," she said. "There's sort of an anti-tax sentiment right now, so it's going to be tough to get an increase in anything, I think. And then election years are always tough, so it's got a steep hill."