Iowa State Rep. Josh Byrnes
How do you make a 10-cent gas tax increase palatable?

You've got to be proactive and educate all of your constituents. That's the approach State Representative Josh Byrnes, chairman of Iowa's House Transportation Committee, says will best serve all Iowans and enable the state to address neglected and badly needed infrastructure improvements for roads and bridges.

Iowans currently pay a state fuel tax of 21 cents per gallon for regular gasoline and its gas tax is lower than five of the six states along its border, (only Missouri's is less (17.7 cents per gal). But the money collected leaves an annual shortfall of $215 million.

As Byrnes explained it in an interview last week, Iowa's demographics are far different from Virginia's where legislators are considering eliminating the state fuel tax and replacing it with an increased state sales tax. Such an attempt in Iowa, he feels, would be doomed from the start. But, he has faith that Iowans will weigh the facts and make responsible choices.

"We're seeing 25% of our fuel tax paid from out-of-state people coming in, and I know that truck stops in the bordering counties are concerned about the fuel tax... but if we do raise our fuel tax it's not putting us at a disadvantage. We don't want to price ourselves out of business so folks won't want to fill up in Iowa, but at the same time, even if we increase by 10 cents, we're still under the tax levied by some of our neighboring states."

Would a 2-cent increase (bringing tax parity with S. Dakota) be sufficient for Iowa's needs? No.

"Two cents doesn't do it," Byrnes said. "To get the projects done and basically maintain current infrastructure that's $215 million a year that equates to a 10-cent increase.

In the last 2 years we asked our DOT to trim costs; to free up dollars for road projects and they did. They've done a great job, but we've reached a point where the DOT cannot cut any more. I think they're as efficient as they're going to get. But it's 'crunch time' now.

"We can't afford to kick the can down the road again so I'm really focused in on the fuel tax and what it's going to take to get folks on board with me.

"In Iowa we have a unique situation because we have so many secondary roads. We have (aging) bridges that are completely wooden structures. God forbid we ever have a situation with a school bus on a secondary road that goes across the bridge and the bridge gives way... I don't want to have to react because a situation occurred... That's what we do too many times. I want to be on the proactive side.

The conditions of some Iowa bridges are so bad, he said, that some of them are officially embargoed so emergency vehicles can't even go over them. They have to take a longer route to reach their destination. "We actually have homes with bridges embargoed on both sides; I don't even know how you'd get an emergency vehicle to the home. They'd have to cross the bridge and violate that embargo."

"The number one thing for this to be successful in Iowa is we have to educate people about it. In the state of Iowa our fuel tax is constitutionally protected; the governor can't come in and scoop up that money and say 'we've got a shortfall in education; let's scoop the road fund and put it in education' --it can't happen."

Secondly, we have a state funding formula and we are not talking about changing that formula whatsoever.

We need to put the pencil to paper and show people what kind of increase we're talking about. If we go to a 10-cent increase and you put 15,000 miles on your vehicle annually, what is that going to cost you? It isn't as steep as what many may have thought it was.

I think that education piece is essential to making this possible. And, we've got to get politicians past the entrenched 'I won't raise a tax' attitude."

Byrnes said that a number of politicos will readily admit there's a critical problem with Iowa's infrastructure... "But yet, they are dead-set against raising the tax that that will trump doing what is right and what is best, and it's unfortunate."