New Jersey residents help pay for road and bridge maintenance with the third-lowest gas tax in the country, but in recent years they’ve been paying less into the fund.

The reason: Motorists have been driving more efficient cars and logging fewer miles. The lost funding has led some state lawmakers to contemplate raising New Jersey’s gas tax. Others have proposed different ways of funding road and bridge maintenance.

Whether the state will pay more for its roads and bridges is unclear. For now, transportation advocates say any money for roads needs to be new revenue, free of debt.

Janna Chernetz, the New Jersey advocate for the Tri-State Transportation campaign, said the state cannot afford to borrow any more.

“We hope this is the beginning of a conversation,” she said, “and we need to get the conversation going.”

Since 2007, funding provided by the gas tax has dropped from $561 million to $535 million.

New Jersey’s Motor Fuels Tax is a per-gallon assessment on fuel sold in the state. The tax was enacted in 1927 at 2 cents per gallon. Adjusted for the Consumer Price Index, that would be the equivalent of about 26 cents in 2012.

Instead, the state collects 10.5 cents on every gallon of gasoline and diesel fuel sold to passenger vehicles, while diesel trucks and buses pay an additional 3 cents. Vehicles such as Atlantic City’s jitney fleet, which run on compressed natural gas, pay 5.25 cents per gallon, while electric cars do not pay the tax.

New York, by comparison, charges 43 cents per gallon. Pennsylvania collects 39 cents per gallon.

New Jersey last raised its tax in 1989. Inflation has since undermined the value by almost half.

Meanwhile, cars have been growing more efficient, averaging almost 26 mpg, with federal standards expected to raise that to 39 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for trucks in the next four years. And, as cars are getting more efficient, New Jersey residents are driving less.

Residents drove about 10,450 miles on average in 1980, according to state Department of Transportation figures. By 2007, New Jersey drivers were traveling another 2,700 miles every year.

The recession and high gas prices then cut into family budgets, and mileage dropped. State motorists in 2010 drove 12,220 miles, more than 900 fewer than they did in 2007.

Between greater efficiency and fewer miles on the road, the state has consequently seen its Motor Fuels Tax raise less money each year for roads and bridges.

The Motor Fuels Tax crossed the half-billion dollar mark in 2000 and reached $563.3 million in 2008. But with less fuel being used, state Treasury figures show the tax collected fell $40 million by 2011.

Slumping gas tax revenue, plus years of borrowing for road maintenance, means the state’s gas tax cannot cover the interest payments on past highway loans.

The state has proposed filling a $250 million hole in next year’s Transportation Trust Fund budget by offering premium bonds, which would be repaid at higher rates of interest. As a result, debt service in this year’s Transportation Trust Fund budget hit $995.4 million and is projected to rise to more than $1 billion in the next budget, staying at that level for the next 10 years.

The cancellation of the ARC Tunnel project, a proposed train tunnel into Manhattan, made available funds that allowed New Jersey to pay for $3.2 billion of the $8 billion cost of the Transportation Trust Fund between 2012 and 2016.

Some state lawmakers suggest raising the gas tax. Over the past two legislative sessions, Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, D-Essex, proposed to raise it by 8-cent increments over three years, eventually bringing in an additional $24 billion to the Transportation Trust Fund.

However, that and similar proposals have gotten little support in the Legislature. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has repeatedly opposed the idea.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, proposed a tax based on mileage earlier this year. State residents would be exempt from the gas tax, but they would be charged about 0.8 cents per mile when they renew their car registration. With average state drivers traveling about 12,220 miles year, drivers would pay about $102.

In 2009, a federal infrastructure panel recommended scrapping the current, 20-year-old, 18.4-cent federal gas tax entirely, replacing it with a similar Vehicle Miles-Traveled, or VMT, tax by 2020. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke in favor of it. A January 2013 report by the federal Government Accountability Office said a VMT tax would be more equitable. But Republicans have opposed the proposal as unfair to rural drivers. The Obama administration has said it does not support the idea.

Oregon officials test-drove the idea in 2006, using GPS transponders that tracked mileage but not destination. When drivers pulled up to the pump, the device determined the mileage tax and adjusted the gas bills. Other states, including Washington, Idaho, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Maryland, Vermont and Rhode Island have contemplated similar VMT taxes. Both the Netherlands and Denmark are planning to start similar programs in the next several years.

Whelan’s proposal was immediately attacked. Somers Point’s libertarian-leaning Liberty and Prosperity group picketed Whelan’s office earlier this month. An email circulated by group President Dennis Mahon urged members to tell Whelan, “We are tired of their constant schemes to raise more money for the state.”

Similarly, Atlantic County Sheriff Frank X. Balles, a Republican candidate for state Senate, said he believed the Transportation Trust Fund did not need additional revenue. Whelan, who said he drives a hybrid car, quickly backpedaled, saying Tuesday that he would amend the bill to cover only electric vehicles or other vehicles that do not pay a gas tax.

In a subsequent emailed statement, Balles wrote, “Whelan’s continued push for a mileage tax on ‘Green’ vehicles unfairly targets our struggling middle class, penalizes consumers for making environmentally conscious decisions and does nothing to reduce America’s long-term dependence on foreign oil.”

For now, it is unclear what the state will do. At a February legislative hearing to discuss his idea, Whelan acknowledged the need to do something, even if his proposal was not a perfect solution.

“We’re in sort of uncharted territory here,” Whelan said.

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