Lawmakers shelve tax hikes aimed at addressing aging roadways

Lawmakers shelve tax hikes aimed at addressing aging roadways
Published: Mar. 23, 2016 at 8:05 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 23, 2016 at 9:22 PM HST
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Current erosion damage in Kaaawa (Image Source: Hawaii News Now)
Current erosion damage in Kaaawa (Image Source: Hawaii News Now)

From crumbling highways to tunnels to bridges, there's no denying Hawaii's roadways need help.

But Wednesday morning, lawmakers shot down tax hikes that would have given the state Department of Transportation $70 million a year in additional funding to tackle much-needed infrastructure upgrades.

The three-part tax increase would have affected everyone who drives. Here's how:

  • Two cents would have been added to the state's gas tax.
  • The vehicle registration fee would have jumped from $45 to $76.50.
  • And the vehicle weight tax would have gone up too, making drivers shell out one cent more per pound.

After hearing testimony from a taxation watchdog group, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee told DOT officials he had doubts about the way the department manages its money.

"There is a concern about the backlog as well as the DOT's management up until this point," said State Rep. Henry Aquino.

Tom Yamachika, of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, raised questions over whether DOT is spending its current appropriations efficiently. "Not only the money that taxpayers give them," he said. "but also the money from the federal government."

Ed Sniffen, deputy director of highways, said when the current administration took over there was a $750 million backlog of federal funds that hadn't been spent. The department has reduced that to just under $600 million.

"When we look at the program itself there were inefficiencies in the program that we had to address as soon as we came in," Sniffen said.

Other issues also went unnoticed. For example, in December a law that gave the DOT an additional one cent from the gas tax expired, creating a $5.5 million shortfall annually.

Some taxpayers say Wednesday's decision serves the agency right. "You know, when I mismanage my money I can't come to DOT or the legislature to get them to help me balance my books," resident DeMont Conner said.

But Sniffen said while drivers won't see tax hikes, they'll still have to pay.

"A lot of the additional lane projects are going to be affected," he said. "Because our priority is going to be first on the preservation and safety side, anything that adds new lanes that I can't maintain I'm not going to build."

The last time lawmakers passed a fuel tax increase was in 2007.

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