Lawmakers: Let county use fuel tax funds for private roads


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

The third time might be the charm.

Big Island lawmakers are once again seeking to allow Hawaii County to use some of its fuel tax revenue to help subdivisions maintain their private roads.

The County Council first attempted to tackle the issue in 2010 by passing a resolution that was supposed to allow it to use the funds to improve substandard roads in the sprawling neighborhoods, mainly located in Puna.

But that ran into legal questions over whether the county could expend public dollars on privately-owned infrastructure.

Rep. Faye Hanohano, D-Puna, introduced a bill the following year to grant the county the legal standing it needed.

The bill she introduced initially came close to passing but died after being amended by the state Senate. The bill failed to gain any more traction in 2012.

Hanohano has introduced the bill again in two versions. This year she is also being joined by state Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, who introduced a companion bill.

Supporters of the legislation say the county should help the subdivisions because the roads are open to the public.

June Conant, Hawaiian Paradise Park Owners Association president, said the residents also pay the same fuel tax and should get some return.

“We feel that it is only fair that we get some of it back to help us,” she said.

The Puna subdivision has 137 miles of roads, and the neighborhood has struggled to raise the funds to pave much of it.

But even if the legislation is passed, it’s unclear if there will be enough money to go around.

The county is expecting to receive $7.6 million in fuel tax revenue this fiscal year. That has to be split up among about 1,000 miles of public roads, said Warren Lee, county public works director.

Lee said the public roads are in pretty good condition overall, but money is still tight.

“We have roads that should be paved or resurfaced but the amount of funding is a constraint,” he said.

Currently, the county distributes road maintenance dollars among its nine districts based on how many miles of public roads there are in each.

That formula would leave Puna without any additional funding for roads if one of the bills is adopted.

Lee said the department would have to consider changing how it allocates the funds.

“I think it’s one of those details that has to be worked out,” he said.

Still, other districts could see less road funding as a result.

Lee said he is supportive of the legislation because it gives his department more flexibility.

“It’s extra tools in the box,” he said.

The county has the lowest fuel tax rate in the state at 8.8 cents per gallon, according to the state Department of Taxation. That rate hasn’t changed since 1988.

The City and County of Honolulu has the highest rate at 16.8 cents. Maui County’s rate is at 16 cents, while Kauai County charges 13 cents.

The state tax is an additional 17 cents per gallon.

Lee said the county might have to consider raising the rate if it begins to help maintain private roads, though it’s not something he is recommending at this time.

“I think it needs to be assessed,” he said. “We need to balance the fuel tax that comes from the residents … versus what we would do with the fuel tax.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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