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Group kicks off campaign to raise fuel taxes

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Surrounded by hundreds of white crosses symbolizing traffic accident victims, supporters of increasing state motor fuel taxes kicked off a campaign Wednesday to raise new revenue to fix Oklahoma's crumbling roads and bridges.

A highway advocacy group, Oklahomans for Safe Roads and Bridges, spearheaded an initiative petition last year to force a statewide election to increase fuel taxes. The plan, scheduled for a vote on Sept. 13, would raise about $150 million a year for roads and bridges.

The group kicked off its campaign on the anniversary of the death of Yvonne Osborne, a Texas woman who died last year when falling concrete from a bridge across Interstate 35 south of Oklahoma City smashed through her windshield.

"Unfortunately, her story is only one of thousands of needless deaths on our highways," said the chairman of the group, former state Transportation Director Neal McCaleb.

"We have an opportunity to invest in our future and to begin significantly and quickly rebuilding our roads and bridges by voting yes," McCaleb said.

State Question 723 would raise Oklahoma's 17-cent per gallon gasoline tax and 14-cent per gallon diesel tax to 22 cents each, the first increase since 1987. The average Oklahoman would pay about $2.50 a month more in fuel taxes under the plan.

The proposal also would create a constitutional trust fund that would lock existing and new fuel tax revenue for transportation needs and prevent lawmakers from diverting it.

The plan is opposed by the Oklahoma Trucking Association, which said McCaleb's group is using scare tactics to promote the tax by installing thousands of white crosses across the state.

The crosses represent the 3,000 people who have died in the past seven years in non-alcohol or non-speeding accidents, McCaleb said. They were erected to raise public awareness about Oklahoma's dangerous roads and escalating death toll.

"When I hear them shedding crocodile tears, I'm not very impressed," McCaleb said of the trucking group. "They're the ones with the heavy axles who are causing the problems.

"The trucks need to pay at least as much as passenger vehicles. That's just unconscionable."

McCaleb said Oklahoma roads have been neglected by state lawmakers since 1921 when the first gasoline tax was imposed. His group formed after the Legislature failed three years in a row to send fuel tax increase proposals to Oklahoma voters.

A plan that will eventually pump $170 million more into the state's road and bridge maintenance budget each year without raising taxes passed the Legislature this year before it adjourned on May 27.

But McCaleb said it could take up to 10 years to fully fund the proposal. The plan will produce $15 million more for road and bridge maintenance during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

He said Oklahoma spends half as much on bridge and highway maintenance as neighboring Kansas, which has a smaller population. The state spends about $6,000 per highway mile while Kansas spends an average of $12,000.

"It's no mystery that their roads are twice as good," McCaleb said.

Oklahoma transportation officials have said more than 3,000 miles of Oklahoma's 12,266 miles of highway need to be repaired or replaced and about 1,600 of the state's 6,728 bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
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