Road safety is compromised, pocketbooks take a hit when highway funding is diverted

BAD ROADS: A portion of the road along Marine Corps Drive in Tamuning is shown missing a layer of asphalt in this September 2020 file photo. An audit report from the Office of Public Accountability showed million of dollars in highway funding was diverted toward payroll, "fringe benefits" and other expenses not directly related to highway safety and maintenance. Post file photo

Many Guamanians who can't afford to replace the family vehicle every few years know that the thud and creak of their ride hitting a pothole over and over can cause worry that these bad roads will hurt their pockets later on.

Tires might need replacement sooner than the normal wear and tear, wheels can get misaligned, and the steering and suspension could get the kind of damage that may cause a major financial setback to someone with meager means, and possibly jeopardize a household's ability to keep a job or take the kids to school.

What's more worrisome is that avoiding a pothole could also endanger the lives of motorists and pedestrians.

There is a source of cash that's specifically identified by Guam law for road repairs, such as longer-term fixes of potholes, and road improvements such as developing paved sidewalks, bike lanes and crosswalks that will help keep motorists, pedestrians and bikers safe.

Cash that goes into the Guam Highway Special Revenue Fund comes directly from motorists and businesses that pay liquid fuel tax for the gasoline or diesel they buy at the gas pumps and for travelers whose cost of airfare includes jet fuel.

Payments for the yearly vehicle registration and driver’s license fees every three or five years also go into this highway fund.

The government imposes an aviation fuel tax of 8 cents per gallon; a diesel fuel tax of 14 cents per gallon; and for gasoline and all other fuel, 15 cents per gallon. A surcharge of 4 cents a gallon is also imposed on Guam who use gasoline.

A driver's license renewal costs $25 for three years and $45 for five years.

During the budget year that ended in September 2020, the fund posted an operating deficit of $4.9 million, which is a complete reversal from a $4.7 million operating surplus in the 2019 budget year.

The deficit was the result of decreases in purchases of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel during the pandemic restrictions of movement. In the 2019 budget year, the fund received $14.4 million in liquid fuel tax collections. In fiscal 2020, the amount of fuel tax revenue decreased to $11.6 million.

The collection of vehicle registration and driver’s license fees also decreased, from $10.7 million to $8.4 million, in that same time frame.

The Guam Highway Special Revenue Fund was created by Guam law, under GCA 54102, “for the purpose of performing maintenance on Guam’s highways and roadways, and implementing highway safety plans, programs and projects,” according to the Office of Public Accountability.

The expectation is that GovGuam in general will honor the intent of the law and that the funding source is specifically for road repairs and other projects directly related to road safety.

But year after year, GovGuam decides to divert a sizable chunk of this funding source for uses other than to save lives on the road.

The latest audit into the highway fund, released by the OPA on Wednesday, confirms yet another budget year in which money has been diverted out of this fund for uses other than the safety of motorists, pedestrians and bikers, and for road improvements that will cushion residents' wallets from more expensive car repairs and maintenance.

Some of the road funds' cash went to:

• The Guam Regional Transit Authority, which spent more than $600,000 from the highway fund for salaries and wages, overtime and "fringe benefits" of certain people on the GRTA payroll; and

• The Mayors' Council of Guam, which used $5.7 million for regular salaries and wages, $86,658 for overtime, and $2 million for “fringe benefits” from the highway fund.

Instead of reducing the amount that was diverted from the highway fund, at a time when fuel tax collections decreased during the pandemic, the payroll cost for the mayors’ offices using money from the highway fund increased by $2.4 million to $7.8 million in fiscal 2020 compared to the prior budget year.

Another public law, enacted by the Legislature, authorized the Mayors' Council to use $6.2 million from the highway fund for fiscal 2020, but the spending far exceeded that amount, as noted in the auditors' findings which also pointed out that the overspending – beyond what the law allows – is a recurring issue.

There must be a way for the government and its officials to be held to the same standards that apply to regular Guamanians who are charged with various forms of penalties and punishments when they don't or can't afford to follow the law.

The issue of disregarding laws on the highway fund is not a one-off case. These events are starting to sound repetitive in other areas in GovGuam as well.

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