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Hitting road gets pricey

    People stand in line to register vehicles or do other business at the satellite city hall at Ala Moana Center.

When proposed increases of vehicle registration fees and weight taxes kick in next year, a Honda Civic owner will pay $46.76 more for the 2,672-pound car’s annual sticker.

Lawmakers on Tuesday voted to raise both to shore up the state’s dwindling highway fund as federal subsidies shrink, fuel-efficient cars have drivers buying less gasoline and raids of the fund in previous years make their mark.

The annual vehicle registration fee will go up from $25 to $45 if Gov. Neil Abercrombie signs the measure. The weight tax for all vehicles will more than double, from 0.75 cent per pound to 1.75 cents.

"I think it’s already too expensive now," said Vanessa Cabral, a Liliha resident who works at District Court. Cabral was at the Ala Moana Center Satellite City Hall renewing her Nissan 350Z’s registration yesterday. The fee was going to set her back about $234.

Cabral called on lawmakers to rein in spending instead, and said there was too much government waste to justify shoring up the highway fund on the backs on drivers.

"It’s hard enough to pay for utilities and other bills," she said. "Pretty soon you’re going to have to be really wealthy just to own a car."

The state Department of Transportation argued for the increase, saying the agency’s Special Maintenance Program, paid for by the highway funds, currently has $27 million. But the department said the program needs more than $80 million.

The weight tax increase is expected to bring in an additional $32.9 million a year; the registration fee increase, about $22.9 million annually.

State Rep. Joe Souki, a Maui Democrat who supported both measures, said the state needs to play catch-up because federal subsidies from fuel taxes have been shrinking, in part because of fuel-efficient vehicles.

"Our share historically has been $150 million a year, but now it’s been dropping," said Souki (D, Waihee-Wailuku). "It’s good in a way that we’re more efficient. … But even the hybrid cars make the same pukas on the highway if you don’t maintain it. And the trucks haven’t gotten smaller."

The highway fund also has been raided in recent years for other purposes. Souki said the raids were during years when the funds had a surplus.

The Legislature should have been making smaller, incremental increases in the weight tax through the past several years, said Lowell Kalapa, president of Tax Foundation of Hawaii, an idea his group has pushed for the past eight years.

"However they chose to ignore it, not wanting to raise taxes," Kalapa said. "The result now is that we have to take a huge jump. … We knew the fund was going south back in 2004."

Kalapa also questioned the wisdom of a legislative decision in the early 2000s to have some of the registration fee go toward emergency medical services.

"Yes, there are highway accidents, but those are not the only incidents that require emergency medical services," Kalapa said.

The foundation has suggested the Legislature look at transferring general excise taxes from fuel sales to the highway fund. This would give the highway fund some flexibility, since it would grow as gas prices go up.

"It is getting more costly for highway users," Kalapa said. "The question is whether or not it’s an investment. And if the quality of our roads say anything, you have to ask yourself just what is the efficiency of the money being spent."

State Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran (D, Kahului-Paia) voted against both increases. He said although the fund needs to be replenished, he would prefer to explore other ways to raise revenue.

"I don’t disagree that we need to do something to provide the funds we need for proper maintenance of the highways," he said. "But with all the other hikes and the economy the way it is, these are increases that a lot of working people are going to notice."

Meanwhile, the City Council is also considering raising the fuel tax on Oahu by a penny, to 17.5 cents.

Just yesterday, Honolulu hit its highest recorded average for gas prices, at $4.47 a gallon. A year ago, the average was $3.46 a gallon.

The rising prices spell challenges for Kaimuki resident Rosalyn Ardoin, mother of a 3-month-old daughter and who just finished paying off her car.

"I think it’s a little ridiculous," Ardoin said of the costs to drive. She said she and her husband used to drive to Kapiolani Park to exercise. Now they stay in their neighborhood.

"We’re trying to save up for a house, but it’s been really hard," she said.

Gareth Sakakida, managing director of the Hawaii Transportation Association, said with last year’s city weight tax and barrel tax increases added to the state’s new raises, Oahu residents stand to pay $170 more per vehicle.

"The industry just cannot afford the kind of money you are seeking for the highway fund, if it even remains there," Sakakida said in testimony in March. "We understand the highway fund needs shoring up, but the amount of the increase at this time is of great concern."

Rep. Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai) also voted against the measures. He criticized the Legislature’s budget plan to bring in $600 million in additional revenue for the fiscal year.

"We took out $600 million from our economy," Ward said. "When the economy is already sputtering, the timing is very inappropriate."

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