Looking beyond the gas tax for a solution to our crumbling infrastructure

I don’t have time to add much in the way of background or insight, but I really wanted to pass along this article in today’s Washington Post on our failing transportation infrastructure and how we might be able to finance the improvements that are necessary. Here’s a clip:

…U.S. investment in preservation and development of transportation infrastructure lags so far behind that of China, Russia and European nations that it will lead to “a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run.”

That is a central conclusion in a report issued on behalf of about 80 transportation experts who met for three days in September 2009 at the University of Virginia. Few of their conclusions were groundbreaking, but the weight of their credentials lends gravity to their findings…

The key to salvation is developing new long-term funding sources to replace the waning revenue from federal and state gas taxes that largely paid for the construction and expansion of the highway system in the 1950s and 1960s, the report said.

“Infrastructure is important, but it’s not getting the face time with the American people,” Skinner said. “We’ve got to look at this as an investment, not an expense.”

A major increase in the federal gas tax, which has remained unchanged since it was bumped to 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993, might be the most politically palatable way to boost revenue in the short term, the report said, but over the long run, Americans should expect to pay for each mile they drive.

“A fee of just one penny per mile would equal the revenue currently collected by the fuel tax; a fee of two cents per mile would generate the revenue necessary to support an appropriate level of investment over the long term,” the report said.

Fuel tax revenue, including state taxes that range from 8 cents in Alaska to 46.6 cents in California, have declined as fuel efficiency has increased. President Obama mandated that new cars get 35.5 miles on average per gallon by 2016, and government officials said last week that they are considering raising the average to 62 miles per gallon by 2025.

Facing midterm elections in November, Congress has lacked the will to tackle transportation funding. Efforts to advance a new six-year federal transportation plan stalled on Capitol Hill after the previous one expired last year…

If only you people had listened to me in January, 2007.

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  1. dragon
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    These jack-offs won’t even accept already allocated funds for new rail builds, what’s the chance they will accept a new tax.

    In Wisconsin, which got more than $810 million in federal stimulus money to build a train line between Milwaukee and Madison, Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive and Republican candidate for governor, has made his opposition to the project central to his campaign.
    Mr. Walker, who worries that the state could be required to spend $7 million to $10 million a year to operate the trains once the line is built, started a Web site, http://www.NoTrain.com, and has run a television advertisement in which he calls the rail project a boondoggle.
    “I’m Scott Walker,” he says in the advertisement, “and if I’m elected as your next governor, we’ll stop this train.”

    Rejecting money, jobs and infrastructure because they will have to maintain the service.
    God, we’re fucked.

  2. Knox
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    The “penny a mile” option had never occurred to me. I suppose it would be easy enough to add a line to the income tax form. But I doubt that people would go for it without having a few bridges collapse first. In the meantime, I agree about upping the gas tax. I can’t believe that it’s been untouched since ’93.

  3. Posted October 5, 2010 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    So just bump the gas tax to $0.55/gal, and allow it to rise with inflation. (If $0.01/mile = $0.184/gal, then the needed $0.02/mile = $.368/gal, and that’s on top of the existing $0.184, for a total of $0.552/gal.) Seriously, a higher gas tax would be much easier to assess than a per-mile fee. Tolls can work on limited-access highways, but not so much on surface streets.

  4. John Galt
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Trains are for the poor. I say we cut taxes to the bone – through the bone if possible – and allow our national infrastructure to rot and crumble. Those with money can buy horses, or be carried by the poor. This was the way the founding fathers intended it.

  5. James Madison
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Mr Galt is correct to some extent, since we Founding Fathers did imagine a future in which the slaves — who were indeed “poor” — would continue to make possible the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. What amazes me is the extent to which Americans of your time, Mr. Galt, idealize what we Founders created two years ago, as if it was a work of perfection and timeless utility, as if our values then were not in conflict with one another, then, and as if our beliefs then would serve all future generations well…..If we had had our way, slavery would have lasted forever and females would never had secured any rights other than the right to marry and obey their husbands.

  6. James Madison
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Excuse my typo — by “two years ago” I meant “two hundred twenty years ago”. See, we founders are no more perfect in death, in hell, then we were when living.

  7. jeff davis
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    hey mark, working on a new project w/ a few people. let me know what you think of it. http://www.myspace.com/bashtv

  8. Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I don’t quite get the point of the switch to per mile tax assessment. Isn’t that just subsidizing vehicles with worse fuel economy. Why not just tie the tax rate to average fuel economy? Then when it becomes the future and we are wearing metallic clothing driving around in vehicles that get 100mpg we won’t care that gas is $20/gallon. It’s long been politically acceptable to heavily tax smokers, the same should apply to gasoline addicts.

  9. Ted
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink


    Do you understand how this site works?


  10. Lorie Thom
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Call me crazy but I happen to think we have too many completely paved roads that require maintenance and not enough easier to maintain rail and non-motorized vehicle paths.

    I think that the gas tax should go up, alot. Just that simple.

    I also think that we will need to repeal our term limit law to have any long term solution for anything.

    The only people in Lansing who don’t have term limits are? Special Interest Lobbyists and Civil Servants.

  11. Larry Seven Larry
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Not crazy at all, Lorie. We need to stop subsidizing gasoline, and charge people what it really costs to acquire it, process it, and then clean up after it has been used, or leaked into our enviroment. A dollar a gallon on top of today’s per gallon cost would be a good start. As Mark has argued here before, we should set the floor at $4. That’s the point at which people start to change their behavior. The point of the article, however, was that, if the prices got that high, and people began changing their behavior, we’d have to find another way to finance infrastructure, and that’s where the per mile charge came in. The gas tax, I think everyone agrees, would be preferable, but we lack leaders with the balls. Gore tried, but he got shut down pretty quickly.

  12. Peter Larson
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t subsidizing gasoline somewhat socialist?

  13. John Galt
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Can’t we fill the potholes with the bodies of brown babies? And wouldn’t cars run on the blood of the weak? How do we know if we haven’t tried, people? Let’s think outside the box. There are solutions to be had.

  14. TeacherPatti
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Few things burn me up as much as when I see people calling for way high gas prices. For me, that is $4+/gallon (or, as one plucky young man in my biking group said, “$7.00!!!! $7.00 MINIMUM!!” (it was like those scences in “Better Off Dead” when the kid is chasing Cusack yelling, “$2!” only this was “$7!”)
    This is why I feel this way:
    I have no choice except to drive to work. I would never make it as a teacher in A2 and there are no jobs anyway. (And this is from someone who is dual certified in two special ed areas and “highly qualified” in 5 additional subjects). Given that, I have to drive to work which is fine b/c I love to drive. Love my car, love my Sirius. If gas goes up to $4 or whatever, I can’t change my behavior. Let me repeat that there are simply no teaching jobs…something like 80% of certified teachers will never get a job in MI so I’m one of the lucky few. I guess I could quit my job but that would be kind of silly, wouldn’t it? I know that one answer is public transportation but I ain’t gonna lie friends–I am not taking a train to Detroit and trusting that a bus will pick me up at the station and deposit me at my school. This morning alone I saw a daytime hooker, a drug transaction and about 5 burned out houses…I need my car, my friends.
    Another reason that I feel this way is because of some of the folks that I work with. I am lucky to work with a fabulous parapro who earns just under $15/hour for 30 hours per week. He has to drive across the city to get to this job. If gas goes up too much, my coworker simply won’t be able to afford to work (please don’t give me the “public transportation” line…ever seen a bus on time in Detroit? Me neither).
    It’s not a matter of changing behavior for some people–it’s a difference between being able to drive to work and not. Now if we can create more jobs, increase our wages, work out the perfect transportation system/jet packs, well sign me up. But until then, kindly remember the rest of us….

  15. John Galt
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    This would not be a problem, Patti, if all children home schooled, and all teachers were transitioned into careers in sharecropping. There ARE solutions, America.

  16. kjc
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    unfortunately the “public transportation line” is a fact for a lot of people. people who can’t afford a car in the first place. and yes their job options are limited. and yes their lives are inconvenient. and yes they still have to take the bus even if it’s not on time and even if someone’s selling drugs nearby. the rest of us is relative i guess.

  17. Ypsijav
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Peter, no need to be alarmed: a large segment of the population are have-nots who can’t afford a car and are thus excluded from the gasoline subsidy differentiating from the radical socialist wealth redistribution conspiracy.

  18. lorie thom
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    @TeacherPatti – I hear ya but I really do think that the car, truck and commercial vehicle driving public have to pay the true cost of their way in the world and yes, that does add up to something like $7 a gallon when all the cost of road maintenance and construction along with the pollution and damage issues is accounted for state by state, mile by mile.

    I know it hurts – I’m a driver too.

    I believe we need to right-size our infrastructure to meet our needs (and that means ending maintenance of essentially private roads) and truely have the driving public pay their fair share. That means possibly doubling the cost of gas. I’m talking about a solution – not a reality. Tried to separate that out before. Nothing will really happen until we undo the mess we made with term limits.

  19. Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Hear you too Lorie, it’s just something we gotta agree to disagree on :) I am going to have to drive no matter what the price of gas is–I”m not taking public transportation. I’ve had a car since I was 16 years old. So if the gas goes up, then I have to stop spending money on other things, which will hurt local businesses and so on. I would like to add that, outside of A2/Ypsi, I personally haven’t met too many folks who express much interest in public transportation. I grew up in the suburbs and you would have had to have shot us to get us on a bus. We all got cars when we were 16 and never looked back. I have no idea how to change that mentality and like I said, it’s not a mentality I particularly *want* to change. (Now, if they had public transportation that my car could ride on with me…you’ve got a deal. That way, if people start shooting at my school and I gotta go, I’d still have my car).

    Maybe we could get some billionaire to pay for all of this???? :) And hey, what do our tea baggers say about this issue? They want less government right? So….?

  20. kjc
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    “We all got cars when we were 16 and never looked back. I have no idea how to change that mentality”

    the world will change it for you. not looking back isn’t going to work anymore.

  21. Carcass Rock
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    I absolutley adore gasoline. Sometimes I eat it, because it is cheaper than milk.

  22. Posted October 6, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    “I have no idea how to change that mentality”

    Patti –

    I understand your concerns – they’re very real, and they’re not at all unique to you, or to metro Detroit.
    * Where the jobs are is not where the housing is.
    * The public transit system is imperfect in where it gets you, when, and how fast (same could be said of cars, though, imho).
    * You have safety concerns about transit (though, public health research shows that the suburbs are more dangerous than any central city, when you add together car crashes and crime)

    But, unfortunately, it’s almost as kjc says – at some point, we won’t have a choice but to change our behavior (your mentality you may or may not change in the process). The choice we DO have is whether we wait until the choice is made for us, with disastrous consequences, or start figuring out how to Make It Work. Saying “it can’t happen” or “people won’t do it” is saying, “we choose to ignore the problem – because it’s hard – until it blows up in our face.” Gulp.

    And it _is_ a hard problem. Especially the jobs/housing mismatch question – that’s an issue we’ve put 70 years of investment into, including incredible subsidies. (Everything from homes to auto plants, we have poured government money into for decades – on the condition that they’re built in the ‘burbs.) As a result, we’re forced to drive further and further to get where we’re going – the problem you’re talking about.

    Metro Detroit is by no means the worst offender in terms of sprawl, but it’s one of the big ones. A study released last week by CEOs for Cities, Driven Apart, provides a good picture of how much of your life you waste because of subsidized, sprawling land use patterns.

    I think we need to take a good long look at where we’re putting subsidies, and reconsider both our massive subsidies for road construction (according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “user fees” like gas taxes and tolls only pay 51% of the cost of road construction) as well as for sprawling housing that isolates people from where they need to be, and forces them into their cars.

    I find it hilarious (in a really black humor sort of way) to hear self-described conservatives rail against “social engineering” and decry government intervention in things like mass transit and urban brownfield redevelopment, while ignoring the trillions of dollars of subsidy and massive legal proscription of alternatives that have gone into building the status quo. (The Federal mortgage interest deduction alone runs into $100B annually of subsidy, while I’m betting the majority of readers can find the term “R-1” attached to the property they live in, outright requiring them to consume a certain amount of land, materials, and energy in their housing.)

    So, Patti, you’ve touched a nerve – but, as I said, it’s not just an issue of changing your perception. We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead to create realistic choices and alternatives that can /enable/ us to change our perceptions. I mean this to be sympathizing with your problems – as very real issues that you personally have limited control over – rather than attacking you as if your situation was a genuine choice on your part.

  23. Peter Larson
    Posted October 6, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    The solution to high gas prices is rather simple. Buy a car that uses less of it. While it would be ideal to live near one’s place of work, this is not always possible, unfortunately.

    I used to drive 60 miles each way to work for $12.00 an hour and it sucked but I had no other opportunities at the time. I did this when gas was creeping up to $5.00 a gallon. When I bought a car that got 40 miles to the gallon, I saw my gasoline bill halved and it was an incredible relief. Granted, the drive still sucked and having nearly a third of my wage go to the gas tank sucked, but I can’t defend subsidies for gasoline merely because I personally benefit from it.

    Societally, it’s wrong and we will make no progress to develop public transit networks, nor more efficient cars until we stop it. The same could be said of the Farm Bill, which provides subsidies to farmers who grow corn. We will make no gains on getting people to eat less fast food until we stop subsidizing it.

    Republicans (and Democrats) who support these subsidies do not serve the best interests of the general population, but rather a few corporate players hoping to eke out some profit at taxpayer expense.

  24. Posted October 6, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Yep, Peter is right…I did buy a car that uses less gas and it does help a lot.

    Murph, no personal attack taken at all! Thanks for your well thought of words…and you did hit the larger issues (that I didn’t feel prepared to get into) and that is that the jobs aren’t where the people are. About half of my kids on my caseload have working parents and NONE work in the city of Detroit…all are in the suburbs (Canton, Pontiac, Southfield, Sterling Heights, plus a few more I can’t recall right now). Wouldn’t it be nice to have Detroiters, oh I don’t know, working in Detroit (if they want to, of course).

    For me, I’m still going to choose to teach where I do because I like it (in fact, I was supposed to be out sick today but I feel better and I’m dashing off in a minute) and I like the kids. I know this sounds DORKTASTIC but I feel like I’m needed there.

    So Murph & Peter (hey, remember Peter Murphy from the 80s?) thanx…this is a hot topic and one of the few I’m kinda set on in my ways (the other two are yes stem cells & no charter schools).

  25. Lionel Richie, Jr.
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Well, Teacher, if you have a virus you probably just got a few dozen kids sick because you are dorktastic.
    I am hoping it wasn’t.
    If it was, thanks for nothing.

  26. Edward
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I heard on the TV this morning that poverty is growing faster in suburban America than anywhere else, which is really terrible because they’re so damned isolated from services. So, if you’re looking for reasons to hate the suburbs, there’s another one.

  27. Peter Larson
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I also read that when you figure in car-crashes, surburban areas are more dangerous than inner cities.

  28. Peter Larson
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Mind you, I don’t know if that’s true or not, just having read it.

  29. Oliva
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Lionel Jr., do you think maybe TeacherPatti got sick from her students? I’ve been hearing about nearly empty classrooms and classes of 20-plus being reduced to 5 students the last few weeks. Around here we had the stubborn sickness for more than 2 weeks. Kind of miserable . . . hope nobody reading this is sick. If so, rest up. (There’s an interesting new [I think new] take on colds, but not flu, that the stouter your immune system is, the worse the cold will be. Think I read about it, while sick–so the poor retention!–in the NY Times recently.)

  30. Etoc
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Suburbs are unsustainable. If you live outside a city, you should be a farmer. Done. Next subject.

  31. Oliva
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    There’s an interesting (and fairly brief, ca. 20 mins.) TEDTalk on “retrofitting the suburbs”: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ellen_dunham_jones_retrofitting_suburbia.html

  32. Posted October 7, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanx Oliva. Whenever I express an opinion that differentiates me from a doormat, someone has to pipe up to rip on me as a teacher. Usually it’s along the lines of “You should be in administration!!1!!11!!” We uppity wimmins just never learn.

    For the record, it was a migraine which, thankfully, aren’t contagious.

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