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County's road plan is wise approach

There’s a wise old philosophy about maintaining your automobile: “Pay now, or pay more later.” In short, it means if you try to save a few dollars by forgoing oil changes, for example, you’ll face a much bigger bill later when your car’s engine blows a rod.

The apt adage also applies to the roads that hum beneath our wheels as we commute to work, school or the neighborhood grocery store.

In about a month, when ballots for the Nov. 4 general election arrive in the mail, voters in Washington County will notice Measure 34-221. If approved, the measure would allow county officials to charge an additional $30 per year when drivers apply to renew their vehicle registrations. The extra money would be used to maintain roads within the county.

Officials estimate that the county is already facing $10.5 million in deferred road maintenance — a number likely to climb much higher if basic maintenance is not taken care of and roads deteriorate to the point where major rehabilitation and reconstruction is needed.

It would be foolish to let our roads get to that crisis level. Roads are not just a luxury we can choose to neglect to save money. As the ballot measure’s proponents point out, roads connect communities and are essential to the local economy. Good roads are important for commerce and for efficient response times by emergency vehicles, as well as for everyday motorists. Poorly maintained roads exacerbate congestion because they tend to slow traffic, and ruts and potholes can sometimes create serious traffic safety hazards as well.

The current vehicle registration fee, imposed by the state, is $43 per year. Measure 34-221 would add another $30 to the total, with all the money earmarked for road projects inside Washington County. Those who own motorcycles or mopeds would pay an additional $17 per year (they now pay $24 a year). Antique cars, school vehicles, farm vehicles, travel trailers and vehicles owned by disabled veterans would be exempt from the new fee.

No one likes to pay more, but this would be money very well spent. Repairing roads before they deteriorate to the point where the foundation of the road itself needs to be fixed is projected to save the county and its taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the long run.

Some may wonder if it would be better to increase the gas tax, so those who use the roads the most bear more of the financial burden. The problem is that gas tax funds are not keeping up with the level of maintenance county roadways need. In one sense, that’s good news: the shortfall comes, in part, from increased use of fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles. That’s because the gas tax is based on the number of gallons sold, not the cost of a gallon of gas. In fact, higher gas prices tend to decrease the number of gallons sold as people turn to mass transit, carpooling or bike commuting.

In addition, it’s tough to budget maintenance projects on a revenue source that fluctuates with the price of gas.

Another concern is that the county would divert this money into other pet projects. It can’t: State law restricts this money to transportation projects. For its part, Washington County has pledged that all the money it brings in from the registration fee increase would go entirely for maintenance. In other words, no new roads, sidewalks or bike paths would be built with this money; it would go exclusively for repair of existing roads.

Is the county asking for too much? There’s no evidence of that, either.

County officials estimate the registration fee would generate an extra $12.8 million a year, which would be split between Washington County (60 percent) and the incorporated cities within the county (40 percent divided among the cities, with allocations based on each city’s population). That means the county’s first-year receipts would fund only 75 percent of the work needed immediately.

What’s more, the Washington County Board of Commissioners had the authority to boost the vehicle registration fee by as much as $43 per year without a public vote, but instead decided to put the $30 proposal on the ballot and ask for taxpayers’ support. Some local officials were unhappy about that strategy.

“Mayors pushed for us to enact this at the board level because the need is there,” said Washington County Chairman Andy Duyck. “But we wanted to make the case (to the public) rather than defend a unilateral decision.”

The commissioners are to be commended for bringing the issue to the voters rather than simply imposing it. We believe they did so because they are confident they can make a strong, common sense case to the public that it will actually cost less in the long run to go this route.

A decision on this measure is pretty simple: Roads are a major investment, and that investment needs to be maintained now, rather than waiting for more costly fixes down the road. Boosting the vehicle registration fee makes sense as an effective and fair way to accomplish that.

We urge county voters to support Measure 34-221.

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