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Our View: Explore other ways to fund road projects

As vehicles become more fuel efficient and the population continues to grow, we will have to come up with a new way to fund road and bridge construction and maintenance.

Historically, governments responsible for maintaining roads have relied in large part on gasoline taxes to pay to upgrade and repair the road network. On a gallon of regular unleaded fuel, the federal government levies an 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax. The state of Illinois tacks on 19 cents a gallon. In Sycamore, the price is increased by 2 cents a gallon; DeKalb adds 3.5 cents.

That made perfect sense when all cars burned unleaded or diesel fuel in comparable amounts.

But the exhaust from combustion engines has side effects that we now seek to minimize: Pollution, dependence on foreign sources of oil, and yes, global warming.

Last week, Hyundai announced plans to market the first vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells in southern California in 2014. Automakers are offering electric vehicles that burn no gasoline, and there are more than 2 million gas-electric hybrid vehicles on the road in the U.S.

The push is on for greater efficiency within the traditional combustion engine segment of the market as well – President Barack Obama’s administration has put in place a plan designed to increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 miles a gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025.

Development and marketing efficient vehicles should be encouraged. They’re easier on the environment and reduce our country’s dependency on foreign oil.

No matter what kind of fuel your vehicle burns, though, it’s no good without roads to drive on.

Although a hybrid Toyota Prius or an electric powered Chevrolet Volt might not burn gas, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contribute to the deterioration of roadways and bridges.

Across the country in Oregon, state officials are trying out a scheme to tax drivers based on the miles they drive, rather than the gas they burn. The plan is to sign up 5,000 drivers to pay 1.5 cents for each mile they drive, rather than be taxed on the gasoline they buy.

Some drivers can opt to have a GPS device added to their vehicle in order to be taxed solely on the miles they drive in the state, rather than all miles they log in a year. This raises legitimate privacy concerns about the state government being able to monitor drivers’ movements.

Maybe a simpler solution would be to abandon the gas tax altogether and instead increase the fees to register vehicles each year. On interstates, perhaps a transponder system similar to the I-Pass network could work.

Some complain that switching from a gasoline-tax-based system could discourage people from buying vehicles that don’t burn gasoline – although there already are tax credits and other incentives in place.

If someone purchases an electric- or fuel-cell-powered vehicle, they should not be exempt from paying to maintain the roads they use. As more vehicles become less reliant on gasoline for fuel, the pool of available funds for our roads will shrink.

It is better to explore alternatives to the gasoline tax now rather than wait for the problem to become more pronounced and try to catch up later.

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