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By John Hollenhorst and Tom Callan
January 23, 2009

A politically potent coalition is pushing to raise the cost of driving in Utah. They say an increase is necessary in gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, but their proposal is already drawing fire.

The state suspended 30 highway projects late last year because of budget shortfalls. Now, the coalition of transportation-related businesses, chambers of commerce and community leaders is pushing to get those projects moving again, especially in key areas.

“Northern Utah County is just a mess, as far as congestion goes, so we need to get that I-15 rebuilt in Utah County. So, there’s a lot at stake here,” said LaVarr Webb, with Utahns for Safe and Efficient Transportation.

The coalition proposes so-called “user-fee” increases — higher taxes really — on gas and vehicle registration. “We do think that a user fee is appropriate. Those who use the highways ought to pay it; and even the big trucking companies that spend a lot on fuel, they’re supportive of this. They recognize the need for mobility and a good transportation system,” Webb said.

Most Utahns disagree, by a whopping margin of 70 percent to 29 percent, according to a poll for KSL-TV and the Deseret News.

The Utah Taxpayers Association also opposes it, unless there’s a decrease in income taxes. “No net tax increases. People are already having a difficult time making their payments; and raising taxes, especially right now, just isn’t the right solution,” said Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

The Sierra Club opposes the hike too, because the extra money can only be spent on one thing. “In our Constitution, gas taxes can only be used for building more roads. And, of course, that causes more air pollution. And right now, we have the worst air in the nation. And what we think it should be instead is a transportation tax that includes mass transit and other options that improve our air quality,” said Marc Heileson, Sierra Club organizer.

The coalition is revving up a public relations campaign to sell the idea of higher taxes. Members say initial signs from Capitol Hill have been encouraging, but our poll suggests it will be a tough fight.