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OUR VIEW: All roads leading to gas tax hike

There seems little doubt that South Dakota's gas tax is about to increase.

Mike Vehle, a Republican state senator from Mitchell, is chairman of a legislative summer study committee that is touring the state this month to talk about highway funding needs. Part of the message is that South Dakota's gas tax, which is 22 cents per gallon, has not been increased since 1999 and is worth only 10.9 cents per gallon when adjusted for the inflation of road and bridge costs.

0 Talk about it

Nobody likes to say they're for a tax increase, but the signs all point toward the need for a higher gas tax to support highways and bridges. Vehle has proposed it in the past and has become probably the state's leading advocate of road funding and maintenance. "If you got it, a truck brought it," he likes to say, before adding dryly, "Not much is parachuted in."

Besides being due for an increase, the gas tax -- Vehle calls it a "highway user fee" -- seems to be the only aspect of highway funding that state leaders can easily impact. The state can't control the amount of transportation funding it gets from the increasingly cash-strapped federal government, and the state already increased license plate fees in 2011 to help local road needs.

Meanwhile, state road repair and maintenance needs are mounting. The needs were put off in recent years by an infusion of federal stimulus dollars in response to the national economic recession, but that one-time money is gone and the long-term needs linger. It's estimated that one-fourth of South Dakota's state highways will be in poor condition within 10 years if funding levels remain constant. And when roads deteriorate to poor status, they cost much more to fix.

All of those and other factors have culminated in this summer's legislative study, which was preceded by Gov. Dennis Daugaard pronouncing in May that he's willing to consider tax increases to fund roads, "including proposals to restore the purchasing power of the gas tax."

With Vehle building legislative and public support for the concept of higher gas taxes and Daugaard already seemingly on board, all that seems left to settle is how much of an increase the Legislature will accept.

There are opponents. In May, state Rep. Mike Verchio, R-Hill City, a member of the summer study committee, said the state should not rely on gas tax increases. "I don't think we can throw it all on the backs of our citizens," he said.

We're not sure who Verchio thinks will pay for roads if not the citizens who collectively own them and drive on them. Just as Vehle reminds people that most goods arrive by truck and not much is parachuted in, we'd remind Verchio that if you're driving on it, you paid for it, and not much road funding falls out of the sky.

We don't like it, but it seems like the time has come to consider an increase in the gas tax. We'll be interested to learn just how much of an increase will ultimately be proposed.