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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dec. 11 (Bloomberg View) — In the middle of the last century the U.S. started building the Interstate Highway System. It’s now named after President Dwight Eisenhower, who shepherded its passage through Congress in 1956. Connecting the far-flung corners of this large nation, this 47,714-mile network allows commerce to flow freely. The cost of construction, adjusted for inflation, was more than $400 billion. By any imaginable measure, it was a wild success, and soon became the envy of the world.

The construction and maintenance was paid for mainly through levies on sales of vehicles, tires and related goods, and a federal gasoline tax that generates about $28 billion a year for the Highway Trust Fund.

The assumption was that the system’s maintenance and improvements would be paid for by users: Those who drove on the roads and highways. The fairest way to assess that was through a gasoline tax. Drive more or bigger vehicles, you pay more. Seems rather logical.

Fast-forward a half-century.

The gas tax has been stuck in a time warp. It was last raised in 1993, to 18.4 cents a gallon. Despite the passage of more than 20 years, with both ensuing inflation and an aging system that needs ever-more maintenance, there it has stayed. The Highway Trust Fund has been starved of cash, and is the process of going broke.

Ike wouldn’t be happy.

Do we need to recite the cases of deteriorating bridges and buckling roads? It’s become routine to detail the annual ratings of our infrastructure (D+), the loss of life when bridge collapses occur, and the increased costs of delay and loss of productivity. It is also a national embarrassment to see our infrastructure decay because of intentional neglect, short-sightedness and ideology.

Enough already.

Let’s take as a rule of thumb that large-scale public-works projects require annual maintenance equal to about 10 percent of construction costs. Apply that to the national highway system and that implies a trust fund budget of about $50 billion a year. That would require the gas tax to rise to about 30 cents a gallon, with adjustments in the future to account for inflation.

Oil prices have fallen 39 percent in the past five months. Gas prices have fallen more than 50 cents a gallon since 2013, according to the American Automobile Association. It would be painless to raise the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon.

Providing the trust fund with the money it needs would have all sorts of ancillary benefits: Various state and municipalities would have enough money to do local road improvements. Traffic would move more quickly and efficiently. Better highways would increase productivity, and save consumers and businesses billions of dollars a year in wear, tear and damage to vehicles. Updating our highways also might make them safer, reducing injuries and saving lives.

If we as a nation were smart, we should explore ways of making our transportation system more intelligent through the use of existing technology. This would allow us to move greater volumes of traffic more efficiently, saving everyone time and money.

An American who travels to Europe or Asia quickly learns that other nations have leapfrogged the U.S. system.  There are many competitive advantages for companies in Europe and Asia, especially in China. Bringing our highway system into the 21st century would be a boon for the U.S. economy.

Unfortunately, the U.S. highway system doesn’t even meet late 20th-century standards. It is long past due for basic maintenance.

Why Congress takes so little pride in one of the great U.S. accomplishments is beyond my understanding. We should find out soon if Congress is the incompetent Parliament of Whores depicted by P.J. O’Rourke, or whether it can carry out even the most basic of government functions.

Photo: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons


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  • Dominick Vila

    Can you spare 12 cents for better U.S. highways? No, there are too many wealthy Republicans and elitists in desperate need of additional wealth to waste our public funds on things that may help 47% of Americans.

    • charleo1

      Well sure, Dom. We should do a lot of things. But the question that keeps me up some nights is, are we still capable of doing such things? Making such decisions, when we’ve got a House in D.C. controlled by people such as our friend from Montana. Who jumped on this article, like a hen on a June Bug, about just the mere mention of being taxed another cent. You know, with all the foreign aid we’re handing out?! And besides, you know how wasteful, and crooked the Gov. is? That mentality is why in Tx. they’ve privatized many of the thoroughfares. We paid the Harris County Toll Road Authority about $6.00 to travel the 15 mi. from downtown Houston, to a suburb near Pearland the other day. Now, who exactly built the road, using who’s money, and what private entity now owns it, is unclear. One of those public-private partnerships, that the Wingers like so well. But, what is clear, the thing that’s so appealing to the Republicans down there. And probably to our friend out in MT. Is they can truthfully say, there’s a new road, and we didn’t raise your taxes a dime to build it. What they don’t say, is who inspects, maintains, and sets the toll prices, on the road? Or that the people of Houston no longer have any say in any of those matters. It’s definitely the regression to the 18th century, they keep long for. Where a man could make a living by following a road ’till he came to creek, then build himself a bridge, and charge travelers whatever they were able to pay to cross it. The old free market in action, and all that. But, it comes from a much darker place
      today. Where public decisions are more and more made by a smaller,
      and smaller fraction of the rich, and influential. Who, I’m not real sure
      actually care whether this particular Country has an efficient, modern infrastructure. If having one would actually advance their long term goals. After all, we’re an aging and advanced market. Pretty much saturated with all the things they could make trillions on, selling to the billions of customers in those emerging markets they are so fond of investing in. So, perhaps to the investor class, it becomes a case
      of not being willing, or calculating that to stock two shelves, ours, and greater Asia’s, where we’re near signing a huge trade agreement. Is simply not the best use of their money. And, if so, they’ve done a masterful job in selling that concept to a fair number of Americans. Albeit couched in different terms. But accomplishing their adjectives all the same.

    • Whatmeworry

      ending the pillaging of the hwy trust fund to fund mass transit bike paths and beautification projects is a simple fix and would restore 40 cents of every dollar collect back to the highway system

      • Daniel Max Ketter

        We need more bike paths, no matter how much it costs the taxpayers. It’s worth it

      • Dominick Vila

        The local government in the city where I live has been doing exactly what you said during the last few years, supposedly to attract retirees from the Northeast and other parts of the country. Unfortunately, shifting expenditures from “beautification” projects, which are also designed to improve quality of life, to repairing and modernizing our infrastructure problems would only touch the tip of the iceberg. Don’t forget that improving our infrastructure involves a lot more than repairing potholes. Our power grid, ports, airports, and public transportation system, among others, need modernization if our goal is to keep up with the rest of the industrialized world and be able to compete effectively.

        • Whatmeworry

          Then its time for a VAT so that everyone has skin in the game for a change

          • Daniel Max Ketter


          • Dominick Vila

            A European style VAT, or a massive restructuring of our tax system, with focus on equality and fairness, would help tremendously. There is something very wrong when a waitress pays more in taxes, proportionately speaking, than a millionaire.

          • Whatmeworry

            I agree that Obama has never offered to pay his fair share.

          • Whatmeworry

            I disagree that Obama has never offered to pay his fair share.

        • Daniel Max Ketter

          We do neet to modernize our power grids, but need to weed out coal plants that pollute the environment, and utilize more solar and wind power, as well as electric buses. We can beautify and modernize at the same time!

  • jakenhyde

    That’s pure bullsh*t. 12 cents a gallon would be killer to a man like me who lives in rural Montana. Businesses can write off the increase and/or charge more for their services. Trucking companies just add a surcharge to their customers.
    Retired people like me who live on a very small fixed income take it in the shorts when fuel taxes are raised.
    If the highway funds had been properly managed in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this problem.
    If we quit sending money to the middle east(Karzai alone took in millions per year), and stop much of the foreign aid to countries that spit on us anyway, we could use that money for highway and bridge infrastructure. Problem solved.
    Charity begins at home!!!

  • mah101

    Other countries in Europe and Asia haven’t “leapfrogged” the US, they make us look like a bloody third world country. Our roads and other infrastructure are a disgusting stain on our nation, a drag on our economy, and we pay for them anyway in the form of increased repairs on vehicles (I personally have spent a couple thousand dollars in the past two years on suspension repairs).

    Congress and our state legislatures have allowed this to happen, and yet they still do nothing to fix the problem. I’m embarrassed when driving in this country with friends from other nations, and I’m disgusted with our politicians for letting this happen.

    • Whatmeworry

      Time for mass transit to fund their own needs rather than pilfering there $$$ from the gas tax

      • Daniel Max Ketter

        We should tax the new pipeline that the repubs are going to force onto the people, and apply it toward Amtrak and electric buses, provided the money won’t be needed to clean up a natural disaster if if leaks

      • Independent1

        As with most issues, you really need to bone up on the facts because the majority of the time YOU’RE WAY OFF BASE.

        Fact is, that gas taxes are used to fund mass transit in only a very few states – in fact, some states’ constitutions forbid using gas taxes for any purpose other than maintaining their roads and bridges. Other forms of taxes such as sales taxes are more prevalent in supporting mass transit than gas taxes.

        See this:

        Certainly the first thing that comes to mind when considering how we pay for public transit is the money that passengers deposit into the farebox whenever they board. In the United States and most countries, the percentage of total operating revenues that passengers pay for through fares is called the farebox recovery ratio, and ranges widely. Most transit systems in the United States have farebox recovery ratios between 25 and 35%. BART in the San Francisco Bay area is an example of a relatively high farebox recovery at almost 66%, while an entity such as the Central Oklahoma Parking and Transportation Authority of Oklahoma City comes in with less than an 11% farebox recovery.

        Other countries generally derive more of their revenue from the farebox than the United State does, with recovery ratios of 50% common in Canada and Europe and up to 100% in parts of Asia and Australia. Click here for a

        Where does the rest of the money come from? Taxes, the types and amounts of which differ from region to region. In the United States, the most common form of taxation for transit is the sales tax. In states as ideologically diverse as California, Texas, and Washington, state wide sales taxes provide the lions share of transit subsidies. Many states also offer some portion of gas tax revenues to transit, although doing so is forbidden in many state constitutions. Property taxes, which are a more common form of transit subsidy in Canada, support public transportation in some states. Income and payroll taxes are rarer, but provide important transit support in New York City and Portland, OR, amongst other places.

        • Whatmeworry

          As usual you fail to understand the issue. We aew talking Fed gas taxes and that 60% going for roads is fact from CBO

          • Staci Kitter Disbrow

            What is aew? Speech impediment?

        • Whatmeworry

          As usual you fail to understand the issue. We aew talking Fed gas taxes and that 30% going for roads is fact from CBO

    • Independent1

      Neither party has really done a bang-up job at keeping our roads and bridges maintained, but keep in mind that the Democrats have only had enough control of Congress to direct funds to our infrastructure for less than a year since Newt Gingrich was elected to Congress in the mid 1990s. And even during that short time they did allocated a fair amount to infrastructure building in Obama’s Stimulus package. It’s especially the GOP that totally neglects our infrastructure maintenance. (Also keep in mind that Eisenhower was not a true Republican – he as more of an Independent who ran on the Republican ticket.)

  • Whatmeworry

    Ike never envisioned that 40 cents of every dollar collected would go for other liberal needs rather than roads and their upkeep. Which is exactly what is happening since the 90’s

    • Daniel Max Ketter

      Ike?? The paranoid war monger who executed Americans for practicing their 1st amendment?? Gimme FDR and the New Deal to make a great leader

    • johninPCFL

      Maybe because during Ike’s tenure the top tax rate was 90% and the FedGov was properly funded.

      • Whatmeworry

        No it wasn’t. The tax rate was 10%, or a dime for each dollar

      • Whatmeworry

        LBJ hadn’t started his war on poverty that BROKE the Bank

      • Whatmeworry

        LBJ had started his war on poverty that BROKE the Bank

    • Independent1

      Other liberal needs?? Let’s see you list what those are given that it’s CONSERVATIVES who are monopolizing WELFARE, FOOD STAMPS AND MEDICAID.

      And it’s RED STATES that suck BY FAR the most tax dollars in federal aid compared to the meager tax dollars they send to Washington. It’s the Blue States that ARE BY FAR more prosperous than the Red States, in fact, IT’S 14 ‘LIBERAL’ BLUE STATES THAT ARE VIRTUALLY SUPPORTING AMERICA!!!

      • Whatmeworry

        It’s listed in the newspapers. Apparently you haven’t read any recently

  • 2ThinkN_Do2

    No I can’t spare 12¢ a gallon.