Byrnes pushing for increase in fuel tax to repair roads
By Jean Caspers-Simmet
Date Modified: 01/31/2014 3:38 PM
DES MOINES —Rep. Joshua Byrnes, an Osage Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, continues to build support for a 10-cent increase in the fuel tax.
"Especially in rural Iowa, there are a lot of bridges that are embargoed or have weight restrictions," Byrnes said. "They're old and the money isn't there to fix them. Infrastructure is an essential function of government. I would never ask or expect an individual to pay for the road in front of their house out of their own private money. Roads and bridges are paid for from the Road Use Tax Fund, property taxes and things like that, and the Road Use Tax Fund isn't keeping up."
Byrnes sees a good road system as an economic development tool.
"The number one thing that separates us from Brazil when it comes to agriculture is that we have good infrastructure to get our crop from the field to the co-op to the rivers or wherever that crop is going," Byrnes said. "We have a good infrastructure to get that done. Brazil does not. But we are going backwards on infrastructure, and we know that Brazil's infrastructure is only going to get better. We have to think about ourselves in that global context and what are the things that make us more competitive. Infrastructure is key."
Byrnes said an increase in the fuel tax is the best way to repair transportation infrastructure. He sees a fuel tax as a user fee. People who use the roads are paying for them. Out-of-state drivers who use Iowa roads would pay as well.
Byrnes likes that the Road Use Tax Fund is constitutionally protected.
"No one can scoop those dollars and use them for something else," he said.
The Road Use Tax Fund has a formula for equal fund distribution so all the money doesn't go to urban areas.
Byrnes is concerned that 26 counties have bonded to pay for road projects.
"Through bonding you're taking a 20 to 25 year loan to fix roads," Byrnes said. "That's paid off by taxpayers of the county. They're paying interest on that loan, and by the time the bonds are paid off, they're almost paying double the cost of those infrastructure projects. I don't see that as the wisest approach. I know that the counties' hands are tied. If the money isn't coming from the state, they have to find alternative solutions."
Passing an increase in the fuel tax is tops on Byrnes agenda and he realizes it's a tall order.
"People say it's a short session, it's a re-election year," Byrnes said. "I don't buy that stuff. Legislators better be in Des Moines doing their job for their constituents instead of worrying about getting re-elected. I'm an optimist, and I'll work hard to get it done."
More legislators are supporting a fuel tax increase this session than in the last one, Byrnes said. Some who were on the fence a year ago are now telling him it's the best approach.
"Republicans are pretty conservative," Byrnes said. "I'm conservative. But if we really want to take the most conservative approach to fixing our roads, then the fuel tax is the best conservative mechanism."
Byrnes has heard from county supervisors, local business people and the superintendent of the Forest City school district.
"They have calculated how much they spend on the repair of buses from driving on rough roads," Byrnes said. "It's damaging their buses, and it's not safe for their kids."
Some legislators tell Byrnes surplus state money could be used to pay for some road projects.
"That surplus money pretty much has been committed to a lot of other projects, and there isn't as much money there as people think," he said.
Governor Branstad has told Byrnes that if the fuel tax passes the House and Senate, he will not veto it, but he will not take a leadership role in getting it passed.
"I know it's a re-election year for him," Byrnes said. "He was governor the last time they raised the fuel tax in 1989, and in 1990 he won re-election by the largest margin of victory ever as governor. I reminded him that it didn't hurt him the first time so he should get on board and do it a second time."
Most people in Byrnes' legislative district support a fuel tax increase.
"Republicans, Democrats, I've hardly had anyone come to me and say that they don't support an increase in the fuel tax,'' he said. "I have enormous support from my constituents."