Add another crisis for our crisis addicted country: We’ve run out of money to pay for building more roads and bridges and maintaining them. Actually, we haven’t been paying enough money to keep bridges and roadways in decent repair. We put those off and spent the money on new roads instead.
So, we can add this looming problem to the refusal to address the national debt, now at 17 trillion dollars, medicare, and social security. These require gobs of money coupled with better and more efficient ways to do things. Part of the solution would be a booming economy flooding the government coffers with money, but we haven’t seen much of that in six years and aren’t likely to see it soon. However, even with a booming economy, the highway problem will remain.
The fact is that even as we see a need for more money to repair what we have and build new pathways (including bicycle and pedestrian facilities) we’re driving fewer miles. Since 2009 the number of total miles driven has pretty well flattened out at 3,000,000 (includes all vehicles). Added to that is that individual drivers are driving fewer miles and their vehicles get more miles to each gallon. Translation: we use less fuel and most of the highway money, federal and state, comes from taxes on fuel which, on the federal level, haven’t been raised since 1993. Those taxes are 18.4 cents on gasoline and 24.4 cents on diesel, plus whatever the states tag on. Those range from 8 cents in Alaska to 52 cents in California. It’s 36 cents here in Florida. Of course, there are other fees (license, for instance) and taxes (sales on products) that make up the whole price.
The point is the U.S. highway trust fund, set up in 1956 to pay for the interstate system, is just about broke in spite of the fact that the treasury dumped in $55 billion since 2008. But, broke is broke and the fund that helps pay for highways in all 50 states (ranging from 15 to 60 per cent) is broke. States can add taxes, of course, but there’s little political will to increase taxes anywhere. Nor is there the individual will to convert to walking, skate boarding, in-line skates, bicycles, or even motor scooting, or mass transit systems for the entire country. Anyway, all these cost money and we’re a traveling population. Putting out more money is the answer.
One of those answers is a miles driven tax. Proposed by the Obama administration and being tried by volunteers in Oregon, it would consist of equipping all cars with a government tied-in GPS system and you’d be billed by the miles driven. Of course, that takes away from the money incentive to use an electric car, but it might be fairer although a big intrusion on privacy. User taxes always seem fair unless you consider that even people who don’t have vehicles are supported by an efficient highway system that produces an efficient goods and people delivery process. So, if you accept that direct user tax, the question still has to be: how much?
There has to be enough to cover everything we have and then some. Considering that miles driven has flattened and that we don’t seem to be adding lots of new vehicles and drivers to the system, new ways of taxing simply re-arranges who pays. That’s not all bad. Fairness is important, but it looks like we’ll need not only user fees, but environmental impact fees, ownership fees, transaction fees, and whatever fees and taxes a fertile bureaucratic mind can dream up. Those who think these highway bills can only be paid by the top one percent are out of luck. This means taxing on everyone.
In 1956, when the interstate system was proposed, part of the idea was for national security – roadways so we can move military men and equipment (think German autobahns). It was an easy idea to sell at the time and while military use wasn’t the prime result, the impact of such a system was tremendous (some good and some bad). Most everyone liked it, although while the feds paid for 90 percent of the construction, the states have had to absorb the maintenance.
Now, in 2014 if we’re going solve our highway problems, maybe with new taxes, we have to sell new ideas. That includes new technologies in vehicles and in highway construction (cutting red tape, maybe?), or just new materials for roadways. Or, maybe thinking big – just think how foresighted the interstate system was; what is comparable to that today? Every problem we face has a technical answer, but always a political problem. Who can game the system? Just because we did it one way before, why do we have to do it now?
For the moment, the answer lies in more money (taxation), but in the long run, if you look back at history, the answer lies in doing things in a different way. Technology that led to the development of vehicles and the need for highways is over 150 years old. We should be thinking new. But in the meantime, count on putting up more money to drive your car.
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