Trucks again at center of debate

CARSON CITY — Next time you drive on a cracked, rutted highway, look for the closest commercial truck to blame for most of the damage.

Longtime Nevada Department of Transportation operations analyst Russ Law said a single 80,000-pound truck causes the same amount of damage as 9,600 passenger cars. That damage is readily visible in places like Cheyenne Boulevard at Interstate 15.

“Why are we rebuilding freeways all the time?” asked Law, who has authored four studies showing the damage to Nevada roadways caused by each class of motor vehicles. “Trucks. That’s why. I have no stomach for tax increases in general. But why not put them in position where they are paying their fair share and Nevada citizens are no longer subsidizing them?”

The issue of how to pay for Nevada’s highways returns to center stage Tuesday when the Legislature’s Interim Committee on Transportation begins to look at how the state can pay for needed highways and road maintenance in the future.

“We face a serious transportation funding shortfall, and we must understand how NDOT selects its highway projects and what the agency’s longtime goals are for the entire state highway system,” said state Senate Transportation Chairman Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, in announcing the meeting.

Instead of taxing the trucking industry, legislators and Gov. Jim Gibbons in June approved a hastily created $1 billion highway funding plan. Their plan earmarked existing room, car rental and property taxes for highway construction.

But Law said the infusion of funds has not kept up with inflation in the costs of highway construction materials.

China, India and other developing nations are competing with the United States for cement and petroleum-based materials used in asphalt. That has driven the price up.

NDOT now needs $5.4 billion to construct 10 super projects around the state, according to Law, now the agency’s director of cartography. Eight of the projects are in Clark County.

The price tag was estimated at $3.8 billion when then-Gov. Kenny Guinn formed a blue ribbon commission to look at state highway needs in 2005.

Another $1.4 billion will be needed by 2010 to keep up with pavement replacement projects, according to the latest NDOT State Highway Preservation Report.

In its most recent cost allocation study, NDOT found that trucks underpay their fair share of highway costs by $336 million for all levels of Nevada government.

But Gibbons and members of the Nevada Legislature ignored the study during the legislative session. Trucks were not assessed any additional taxes.

“If you increase their taxes, then they are just passed onto the consumer,” Gibbons said in a recent interview. “You will pay more for the loaf of bread you buy in the grocery store.”

“If you raise a tax on the trucking industry, they still have to make a profit and it causes prices to go up,” added Paul Enos, Nevada Motor Transport Association executive director. “In Nevada everything is trucked.”

Former state Transportation Director Garth Dull said he hears that line all the time.

“Instead of paying more for groceries, we are paying more for roadways,” he said.

He mentioned that 86 percent of the commercial trucks on Nevada highways did not originate in or have a destination in the state. They simply haul their goods through the state, often not even stopping to fill up with diesel fuel.

Making matters worse is the fact that Nevada received back 94 cents for every $1 in federal fuel taxes its trucks and passenger vehicles paid in 2005, the latest year with figures available, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Nevada does not receive equity in federal tax distribution despite the fact it is a “bridge state” over which trucks haul goods from Pacific Coast ports and manufacturers to destinations in the East.

The Legislature has not increased fuel taxes since 1992. Motorists in larger counties in the state pay 33.4 cents per gallon in state and local gasoline taxes, of which 17.65 cents goes to state government.

Trucks pay 27.75 cents per gallon in state diesel taxes.

Counting federal taxes, Nevadans pay 52 cents per gallon in gasoline taxes, ninth highest in the nation.

Truckers in the state pay nearly 62 cents in total diesel taxes, seventh highest among the states.

Even with record high fuel prices, the American Trucking Association said three states increased gasoline taxes this year. Others, including California, also have levied sales taxes on gasoline in recent years.

State Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, has read the NDOT studies, made impassioned speeches calling for more taxes on trucks, and even debated Gibbons during a June legislative hearing on highway funding.

His pleadings were rejected.

“The Legislature is highly programmed,” Coffin said. “We get most of our information from lobbyists.”

Coffin intends to introduce bills at the 2009 Legislature that call for a 6 cent per gallon increase in the diesel tax and create a weight-distance tax formula.

Both proposals received scant consideration at the 2007 session because of Gibbons’ vow to veto any tax increases approved by the Legislature.

A weight-distance tax formula could lead to the imposition of an additional tax for each mile driven in Nevada by commercial trucks.

Nevada actually taxed trucks under such a system between 1965 and 1989. Studies at that time showed trucks were paying their fair share.

“Just because the governor won’t sign the bill doesn’t mean we should give up,” Coffin said.

Gibbons has expressed a willingness to look at the studies and determine whether trucks are paying their fair share.

“But I don’t think taxes are warranted at this time” during the next legislative session, the governor said.

Out-of-state trucks cannot be taxed at a higher rate than Nevada-based trucks because such a tax would violate the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, Gibbons added.

Enos, of the Motor Transport Association, disputes the findings in NDOT studies. He cites an American Transportation Research Institute study that indicates the trucking industry has been paying its fair share.

That study found trucks pay 37 percent of all fuel taxes and registration fees going into NDOT coffers, while they travel only 8 percent of the total miles driven in the state, according to Enos.

Studies by William McDonald, an American Transportation Research Institute staff member, show that trucks in Nevada actually pay 33 percent of all taxes and fees going to NDOT.

His percentage, however, is higher than what NDOT actually receives.

The state gasoline tax includes 5.35 cents per gallon that by law must be given to cities and counties for their highway maintenance. None of the diesel tax goes to local governments.

The trucking industry in Nevada uses 94 percent of the diesel fuel consumed in Nevada, along with 11 percent of the gasoline, according to McDonald.

However, McDonald’s conclusions are not what Law found in four cost allocations studies he completed for NDOT over a 10-year period.

His studies showed trucks pay about 27 percent of all taxes and fees given to NDOT, but cause about 40 percent of roadway damage.

“Those studies sat on shelves,” said Law, a 23-year NDOT employee. “The trucking industry isn’t paying its fair share. They are out there lobbying to keep it that way.”

Enos concedes that the Nevada Legislature must take action soon to fund needed highway construction.

He will commit his support to a 6 cent per gallon diesel tax increase in 2009, but only if passenger vehicles are assessed a similar gasoline tax increase.

“This is not something the trucking industry can bear solely on its shoulders,” Enos said. “It is not just trucks. Trucks are here to support other businesses that are here. I don’t think you can say, ‘Let’s single out trucks.’ It has to be everybody who uses the roads.”

Both Enos and the American Trucking Association also challenge the conclusion that one truck causes the damage of 9,600 cars.

The organization contends that finding was based on a bogus American Association of State Highways Officials study back in 1962 that carried out tests on shoddy pavement and did not consider the axle weight limits of trucks.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or (775) 687-3901.

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