- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - It’s past time for Utah to hike its gasoline tax for the first time in 17 years, several state lawmakers said at a meeting Wednesday.

The transportation panel discussed a proposal to raise the state tax 1.5 cents per gallon every year over the next five years. To date, Utah collects 24.5 cents per gallon. The last time lawmakers raised the rate was 1997.

Waist-high weeds and crumbling roads show the current rate isn’t enough to maintain each of the state’s roads and bridges, transportation officials said.

Finding the cash for road repairs struck a nerve at the Capitol as Utah and other states anticipate a disruption in federal transportation aid to states this summer.

“We’re at a critical tipping point,” said Rep. Johnny Anderson, a Taylorsville Republican who chairs the Transportation Interim Committee.

To date, Utah is forgoing routine repairs on a third of the state highways, the department said, noting those roads are the most seldom used ones. The state needs an additional $67 million for repairs, said Carlos Braceras, the director of the state Department of Transportation.

Rep. Jim Nielson, a Republican from Bountiful, unsuccessfully brought the legislation to gradually raise the gas tax this year. But local officials last year said they weren’t counting on lawmakers to raise the state rate anyway: the House and half of the Senate are up for re-election in the fall.

Lawmakers said they plan to take action on the issue in January, but some warned hiking taxes too high could lead drivers to avoid the pump in Utah altogether.

“We don’t want to drive people away from Utah,” Anderson said. “We want ‘em to stop and pick up a bag of chips and a coke as well.”

Others contend drivers would find ways to adjust, such as identifying no-drive days and consolidating errand runs. “There’s some wiggle room in everybody’s schedule,” AAA Utah spokeswoman Rolayne Fairclough said.

Last week in Washington, D.C., a U.S. Senate panel approved a bill to keep federal highway programs going at current levels for the next six years, plus inflation. But it’s not yet clear if Congress will act to prevent the disruption in transportation aid to states this summer.

Utah has enough cash on hand to pay for the road and bridge repairs it has already approved through 2015, Braceras said. But any delayed payments from the federal government could impede projects that haven’t already been approved, officials said.

The federal Highway Trust Fund, which now sends roughly $300 million to Utah, is on track to go broke in late August.

If checks written by the federal government begin to stall in summer and fall, the department can’t ask contractors to bid on new projects and will likely forgo additional repairs, Braceras said.

In that case, he said, “it’ll take us a couple of years to catch up.”

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