Politics and roads

Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 10:47 p.m.

The collegial atmosphere that marked the two-day county commission retreat at Poe Springs last week was marred only briefly on Saturday morning. That's when County Commissioner Penny Wheat turned on a fellow commissioner and snapped: "You shouldn't be selling your one vote so cheap."

Nobody blinked. It was a classic, familiar, Penny Wheat moment. She loves to use the privilege of her office to scold, lecture, talk down to or otherwise patronize those with whom she disagrees; be it her fellow commissioners, county staff or the citizens who come seeking redress.

That she had turned her waspish harangue on Mike Byerly, usually an ally on the commission, was the only curious thing about Wheat's indignant outburst.

Of course, Byerly wasn't contemplating "selling" his vote at any price. He had simply committed the unpardonable sin (in Wheat's view) of saying that he would support an increase in the county gasoline tax under certain conditions -- namely that the additional tax dollars be used only to repair and maintain existing roads (as opposed to building new ones) and to build bike paths and support mass transit.

Byerly, along with Rodney Long and Cynthia Chestnut, responded positively to County Manager Randy Reid's request that the commission vote to raise gasoline taxes for three specific purposes; road maintenance, bike lanes and mass transit. Doing so avoids the perennial and divisive debate over whether or not taxes should be raised to build new roads or increase existing road capacity -- for infrastructure improvements intended to accommodate or even foster new growth and development, in other words.

"I don't care about two-laning or four-laning," Reid said. "I've got pot holes...I'll be ashamed if our roads continue to deteriorate."

Reid's suggestion makes eminent sense: That the county commission vote this year on a new gasoline tax to better fund those three public purposes. Any new or expanded road projects -- those intended to accommodate or foster new growth -- could then be put up for public consideration in 2004 in the form of a sales tax referendum; to be accepted or rejected by the voters depending upon whether or not they find the specified projects worthy.

The hitch is that it requires a "supermajority" vote of the commission, 4 votes instead of 3, to raise gasoline taxes by one cent or by five cents. In the past, sheer timidity and future political ambitions have prevented commissioners from raising gas taxes.

Given the commission's history on the gas tax, Byerly's response to Reid's request -- namely that the county has a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the transportation infrastructure it already has, and that the gasoline tax is the natural revenue source with which to fulfill that responsibility -- was thoughtful and courageous. In contrast, Wheat's testy "How could you?" attack on Byerly was simply a manifestation of anti-tax politics as usual.

If Wheat were truly the environmentalist she pretends to be, she would have voted to raise the gasoline tax years ago. Because environmentalists know that cheap gas contributes to sprawl and air pollution.

Moreover, the gasoline tax is the purest form of user fee imaginable. It is a straightforward transaction between motorists and government whereby motorists pay for their use, and abuse, of the public roadways. Motorists who wish to pay less can make the conscious decision to drive less, or to drive smaller vehicles; decisions which, in turn, help the environment and extend the life of the public transportation grid.

Newly elected Commissioner Lee Pinkoson says he wants to ensure that the county is responsibly spending its existing gasoline tax revenues before he votes for any new taxes. That's a prudent request; it is incumbent on county staff to make the case for any new revenues.

On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine Wheat voting for a new gas tax under any circumstances. For she is in show business -- witness her indignant histrionics Saturday over Byerly's "selling" of his vote -- and cares little about the business of governing.

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