Every time Nevada motorists fuel up, they pay a state fuel tax of 17.65 cents a gallon.
In Clark County, where most of the Silver State’s population resides, this tax generates about 60 percent of the state funding for highways. The amount has ranged from $176.9 million to $159.5 million, based on state data covering 2008 to 2012.
But not all of that money finds its way back to the county. County road projects received just 43.1 percent of the state’s fuel tax money, which was divvied up among the 17 counties in that time period, state records show.
Among some local officials, including County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, the situation raises questions of fairness.
“Clark County cannot afford to pay for the road construction and maintenance for the entire state of Nevada,” Sisolak said. “It’s too disproportionate.”
The question was raised Tuesday after the commission voted to start a separate local fuel tax that eventually will add up to 10 cents to each gallon pumped in Clark County over the next three years for county road projects. Sisolak was the lone dissenter.
There’s more to the eye than sparsely populated rural areas getting money from the state’s cash-generating population base. Under state law, counties have the option to levy their own fuel tax of up to 9 cents a gallon for their road needs. Before last week’s vote, Clark County already had the full 9-cent option in place, along with 10 other counties.
The six remaining Nevada counties — Douglas, Esmeralda, Eureka, Lincoln, Nye and Storey — levy 4 cents.
Sisolak said he understands that Clark County is the state’s economic driver. At the same time, he’s troubled by state funding from Southern Nevada going to regions of the state with lower county fuel taxes.
“The money has to go where the population is and where the need is,” he said. “Everybody has to pay their fair share. It’s just not fair.”
State Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, agreed.
“I’m a big believer that Southern Nevada’s been underrepresented,” he said.
However, Segerblom said, with funding already bonded out for projects, an immediate solution isn’t available — it needs to be a long-term goal.
“We need support from these other counties, and they don’t give it to us and we need to figure out a way around it,” he said.
Outside Clark County, others have different ways to look at how roads are funded in Nevada.
And the county does fare somewhat better when looking at all sources of road funding, including federal and state, that flow through the Nevada Department of Transportation to road projects in the county. The county received an average of 55.1 percent of the state’s overall transportation funding from 2008 to 2012. That total figure for the county amounted to $1.7 billion.
Each gallon of fuel sold in Clark County currently has 52.2 cents of taxes and fees, including federal, state and county taxes. That figure doesn’t include the new fuel tax approved Tuesday. The first part of the new fuel tax increase starts in January, with an additional 3.24 cents of tax added to each gallon.
In a statement, state Transportation Director Rudy Malfabon said the agency “has the responsibility of meeting the transportation needs across the entire state, which is critical for the movement of freight and serving the needs of daily commuters, as well as tourism and recreation.”
He also stressed the value of using state funding to leverage federal funding, which usually requires a 5 percent match from another source.
“To eliminate the risk of reduced federal funding, it is essential that the state’s transportation system be kept in an acceptable condition,” he said. “This commitment requires NDOT to invest in the entire system, not just the urban areas where most of the state’s population lives.”
Tom Fransway, a member of the state Transportation Board, represents District 3 in northeast Nevada.
“We certainly understand the needs of our urban partners in the state, and we do everything that we possibly can to make sure that the taxes are delivered equitably throughout the state, and I can tell you that certainly District 3 is deserving of its fair share,” he said. “We feel at this time that it is equitable.”
He noted that his district, unlike Southern Nevada, has to contend with winter weather and the maintenance that comes with it.
“We have weather issues here in the northern part of the state that are hard on the roads, and so we do what we can for the traveling public,” he said.
However, he added, “It certainly helps to have those who can do everything they can to help themselves. I do believe it is in the counties’ best interest to step up to the plate and levy the entire 9 cents.”
Nevada’s transportation funding dilemma isn’t unusual for the United States, said Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“The arguments that Las Vegas or visitors from California to Las Vegas are paying the taxes to connect Ely to Tonopah are correct,” he said. “This problem exists in a lot of places. A lot of other states have the same issue.”
Contact reporter Ben Botkin at email@example.com or 702-405-9781. Follow him on Twitter @BenBotkin1.