Gas Tax Equals Bridge Safety

The U.S. should increase the gasoline tax to 5¢ a gallon and use the money to shore up the country’s bridges. Pro or con?

Pro: Danger Mitigator

The fact that we have neglected the country’s infrastructure is hardly a secret. The tragedy of the Interstate 35W bridge collapsing in Minnesota last month serves as a dramatic symbol of this delinquency. Across the country, thousands of roads, bridges, and highways have fallen into disrepair. Most often this decay takes the form of annoying potholes that slow traffic and damage cars. If the neglect continues, however, we will see more fatal bridge collapses. (And of course, even potholes will lead to more accidents and, therefore, more deaths on the road.)

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $94 billion a year over the next five years to maintain the country’s roads and bridges. This is almost $35 billion more than we are projected to spend. A 5¢-per-gallon gasoline tax would raise close to $6 billion a year. That sum would go far toward ensuring that our bridges are kept in at least decent repair, even if it will not be sufficient to address all the problems with our roads and bridges.

In addition to providing revenue needed to keep our bridges safe, this tax would also discourage unnecessary driving and reduce gasoline consumption. The problems associated with our dependence on imported oil have been brought home by the war in Iraq. Certainly oil is central to the U.S. involvement in the region. A gas price hike would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the impact of this tax on oil dependency and greenhouse gas emissions promises only modest changes, they mean progress.

Inadequate maintenance imposes large costs on a daily basis in the form of traffic delays, vehicle damage, and unnecessary injuries and deaths on the road. This tax would represent a small but significant step toward fixing the problem. It also carries the benefits of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and lessened dependence on imported oil. That sounds pretty good compared with a future of more collapsing bridges.

Con: Too Taxing

Increasing the federal gas tax to shore up the nation’s bridges will not make American drivers safer. But better planning and prioritization of existing transportation funds could. The Transportation Dept. spends about $60 billion per year, and the federal Highway Trust Fund takes in about $40 billion from current gas taxes. There is plenty of money in this $100 billion pot to fund bridge maintenance.

The current national debate proves one thing: Policymakers know how to spend our money, but they have no idea how to invest it.

Part of the Highway Trust Fund is dedicated to funding mass transit despite that transit has proven anything but a success in terms of cost-effectiveness or its ability to get cars off the road. We spend billions, for example, on light-rail projects that very few people use. Even when the highway funds are actually spent on roads, Congress finds a way to earmark money for useless projects like the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. Not surprisingly, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is one of those calling for the tax increase.

State policymakers also bear responsibility. After all, every state has its own fuel tax, supposedly dedicated to road construction and maintenance.

Until policymakers prove themselves more responsible with the money we already make available to them, tax increases will not improve driver safety. The endless array of pork-barrel projects funded by today’s gas tax revenues makes it obvious that money is not the problem; priority-setting is. If they act with more prudence, state and federal governments can keep bridges standing without a tax increase.

The Minnesota bridge collapse is a tragedy. But it should not be used as an excuse by spendthrift policymakers to ask for more money. Hand more revenue over and hope they get it right this time? No thank you.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

dennis bausch

One way to get funding for infrastructure repair would be to de-fund highway beautification projects and sound-wall construction. If it was done, you would kill two birds with one stone.

Cincinnati, Ohio

Terrie

Taxing behaviors that we wish to reduce or eliminate, like smoking or unnecessary fuel consumption, only increases our culture's addiction to those behaviors as we come to depend on the revenue they generate.

Bremmer Mandrake

A bridge that was under construction falls due to the incompetence of a contractor (the bridge was inspected and passed except for some minor repairs), and all the politics of our highways falling apart is just another way of taking our money. See who is trying to get our money this time--the elections are coming.

Frank New York

If you agree with the pros of this debate, you need to read all the facts: Are the roads bad? Yes, but one thing has nothing to do with the other. Check out the flag people on the road crews. Why do they close 10 miles of highway when they work in a one-mile stretch? The John Gottis of the world are gone, but organized crime still runs the unions.

Sue

State priorities tend to go in the direction of federal funding and threats of losing it. Perhaps if the federal government used a carrot and stick approach, it would work. On the one hand, raise the gas tax, and offer the states money to help fix their bridges. On the other hand, cut general transportation funding to states that don't fix their bridges.

George

It's become a tradition to tax commodities everyone uses to fund projects by the spend-free legislative branch. Raising gas taxes will not reduce driving habits. People will complain, then get in their cars to drive two blocks to purchase a loaf of bread. The rise in gas prices over the last 30 years proved people will complain, adjust, pay the price, and drive. Congress knows, and it becomes an easy revenue generator. Once they pass the tax, revenue starts flowing in, and they will have a pot of money to use any way they want and not necessarily for highway repair. Funding earmarks can/will be ignored. They have in the past and will be again.

peter z

Where did they get the money to build "the bridge to nowhere" in Alaska? This did not seem to require a special tax. One more tax dollar is just more down the sinkhole.

Squeezebox

If we raise taxes, the money goes to the general fund and gets spent on Iraq. The answer is to privatize the highways and charge tolls. Then we'll see better roads and fewer drivers on them.

Dante

I agree with Squeezebox. Why should the common peons be allowed on the road? Raise the tolls and up the cost of driving so that only the rich can afford to drive. The lowly peons should beg for rides or work in their locality, bound like serfs to the land. Deep sarcasm here: For the stupid demagoguery, that sounds good but always hoses over the people it's suppose to protect.

Edgar

There comes a limit to the amount of taxes people will pay. What is your limit, or do you want to be honest and say we all work for Uncle Sam?

In the end, after a year, this incident will become but a memory, and most of the new money will go to entitlement programs and bureaucratic salaries.

ted

You have crews upon crews getting paid for little or no work--as in 10 people watching while one or possibly two do the work for the rest.

Good idea? No. Politicians will squander the money on their pet projects.

Dan

Use the ample supply of tax money we already provide for this purpose instead of diverting it for unrelated purposes and pet projects.

Stephen

Here in New York City, we're just waiting for our congestion tax to kick in. Of course, the people who have no choice will still get stuck with the fee. And for those who can afford it, no biggie. But most of us already pay $8 a round trip to go through the tunnels (and it's with the EZPass system; cash costs $9). And with our wonderful (note sarcasm in tone) transit system already at the breaking point, where are all the people who decide to take mass transit supposed to stand when they are waiting for a train or bus? Probably on my toes. And the MTA (the train/bus people) say the system is at peak capacity; my guess is that it's true, not because of train schedules but rather because they don't want to hire enough train operators and conductors so that they could put more trains on the tracks during rush hours. And the buses? Rush hour intervals for the bus I take show a bus every 7-10 minutes; by the time it gets toward the end, it's bypassing people because there's no more room on the bus. Short story: no tax hike unless they pinky-swear not to raid the fund.

hopsing

If you think America's 60% dependence on foreign oil is a bad thing, raise the gas tax. If you're really ambitious and want the proceeds spent for infrastructure maintenance and public transportation alternatives, vote the entrenched politicos out of office, Democrats and Republicans alike. After two terms, they have usually been completely co-opted by industry lobbyists and are worthless as representatives of anybody but industry. Turnover is your ally.

Bob

Would we be talking about this if the Minnesota bridge collapse did not happen? The answer is no.

Duke

Forget the tax hike on gasoline. It is a tax on the poor man, and Congress does not know how to wisely spend money. The gas tax is for roads, not a subway. If these people spent their own money like they spend ours, they would be broke before they even started their campaigns.

Hmmm, if they spent the money like it was coming from their own pockets, maybe we would have some cash left over at the end of the year to give them a bonus or maybe a free trip (a one-way ticket).

Scootstado

If Congress had spent the 100 or so previous nickels they got on our bridges and highways, we would not be in this situation. Cut the pork, and fix the bridges. No more money. If they can't do it, vote them out. It's really that simple.

Astronaut Jones

Thumbs down. Increasing taxes isn't going to solve anything. It may help but definitely not solve. I agree: Better planning and organization should be prompted before attempting any kind of construction.

nitish

As for the issue of how to repair bridges, just see the logic of my argument:

Who will use bridges? Automobiles.
Who has to pay to repair bridges? Automobiles.
How will automobiles pay? Increase tax on automobiles by a judicious amount.

Cedric Chin

Raise the tax. Maybe Americans will finally understand that SUVs, trucks, and middle-class pimp-my-ride luxury cars are more ego-stroking than transportation. By raising gas prices, the U.S. will give drivers more incentives to accept alternate energies that presently are more costly, and we'll sooner stop being dependent on foreign oil. Anyone who drives a car and wants the U.S. out of Iraq is either clueless or a hypocrite.

Tom P Henry

No problem with a tax for bridge repair. Wrong source--it should be assessed on the exorbitant profits the oil companies are taking in.

purebushit!

Still believe in fairy tales? Our polluticans will simply use this and other money to fund NASA (pretty pictures plus paying Russia's costs for the substandard $100 billion-plus garbage station in space) and funding NIH ($19 billion-plus so big pharma has cheap access to future hyper-expensive drugs). Our entire infrastructure is so broken and our polluticans so corrupt, why do we continue reelecting them? We're stupid.

Orin Black

Not fair, as the infrastructure benefits everyone in the society, but only those driving will pay more.

ben

In response to Cedric Chin's comment, promoting alternative fuels by raising the gas tax does not help increase funding for transportation infrastructure. With more fuel-efficient vehicles, especially hybrid vehicles, less fuel is used, therefore lower taxes are paid. This leads to a decrease in the amount of funding.

The fuel tax is losing its power, and raising it will not help fix the issue in the long term. Apart from better planning, revenue needs to be generated in ways other than fuel taxes. Tolls and distance charges are perfect examples as they produce revenue based on infrastructure use rather than fuel consumption, while also helping to reduce congestion.

Bob Clark

Raise road tax by $.50 a gallon and earmark it for bridge and road repair construction based on open-market bidding. States that divert their own revenues into jobs other than roads and bridges will lose this federal tax revenue for the year of violation, and said money will be added to the amount distributed to complying states.

Frank Longworth

The "bridge gas tax" would be another political shenanigan. It is the obligation of the individual state to repair and maintain its bridges. Tolls are the way. Let individual users pay. Just like a grocery store: You consume, you pay.

JKU

It's an easy and painless way to collect money to rebuild or strengthen the bridges that are essential to our transportation system. I only worry that the money pool will be milked by someone and not used on bridges.

Nick Jones

Your article states, "The problems associated with our dependence on imported oil have been brought home by the war in Iraq."

Wasn't the war initiated to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction?

Ikester

This is an opinion as I haven't tried to research the facts. But I suspect the trucking industry is a disproportionate load on the bridges, highways, and other infrastructure it uses and isn't paying its appropriate share. How about a look and, if so, adjusting the taxes it pays to cover its share of the benefits? (Of course, they'll pass it along, but then that's part of the cost of all that Wal-Mart stuff).--Ike

Rick

First, inspect the work and audit the costs that the taxpayers pay to construct and repair our roads and bridges. Then hold the contractors responsible for shoddy work. Once this is accomplished, then yes, increase the gas tax to fund the infrastructure improvement after the taxpayers can be assured their money is being used for its intended purpose.

James Pott

Wanna fix a bridge? Redivert some of the money already being taken from the federal and state highway trust funds and charge responsible administrators to use trust funds for trusted purposes. Enough of the perennial "tin cup" already.

Robert Alan

All the people who do not want to pay are free-riders, pushing off the costs to anyone but themselves. If you want to make it fair, add a $50 to $150 surcharge on the cars and trucks valued over $25,000. You can do it relative to the vehicle's weight--the higher values contribute the highest amount of wear to the roads, bridges, freeways, and highways.

Oh, and call old Al Gore and ask him to borrow that lock box he's not using. Give the politicians another program to raid, and we'll never see a penny go to roads.

herman

I never saw such silly comments. Was this enticed because the Schlomach POV lacked any insights into what "prioritization" means to him?

john

After a recent trip on the interstate highways, I question the spending of our road money. No amount of gas-tax increase will speed up repairs. Example: Southern Georgia has 10 to 15 miles of barrels on Interstate 75 with no one working and speed limits down to 50 to 60 mph. This has been going on for the last five years at least. Very inefficient use of our road money.

NRK

Byron should come to the Northwest where light rail (Portland, Ore., tri-county area), Sounder (Commuter rail from Tacoma and Everett to Seattle), and Amtrak (Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C.) are all planning more trains because the current ones are full. During a recent I5 road construction, ridership on the Sounder increased 75%, and more trains were added. People will ride public transportation.

pamerz

No more taxes!

When I need more money for home-car repairs, I must adjust my budget and save for it. If I can't do that, then I must take another job in addition to my first one. In other words, I must earn more money, not extort my employer for more. Government should do the same.

Flowen

A nickel is still irresponsibly infinitesimal. A dollar would be just a beginning to not only maintain the wear and tear of our highways caused by unconscionably cheap energy but also mitigate the environmental waste and the destruction of poor cultures and peoples as we exploit their local resources, and allow the emergence of a sane energy future. Ten-dollar gasoline or continuing destruction of our culture is our choice. Of course, the government shouldn't get a penny of it.

Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD

Let me understand the problem now. This was once a problem--now why do we bring this up again? The UK newspaper The Independent says that we walk to become slim and thereby save oil and cut the fat or caloric food. I like this. Then we have the bridge toll that will never work. Are there no detours? The whole idea is that oil is expensive, and we look for excuses to save the money
Firozali A.Mulla MBA, PhD
P.O.Box 6044
Dar-Es-Salaam
Tanzania
East Africa

Earl Cylkowski

How about we stop spending a half a trillion dollars on failing to create infrastructure in Iraq, and spend that money in the U.S. to simply shore up our infrastructure? Oh, no, we can't do that because spending money domestically is welfare and we can't create a social state here. Besides, that money is spent, and we'll need another ten trillion to repair the damage we have already wrought. No worries on veteran medical bills; we'll just ostracize the worst cases as malcontents, dishonorably discharge them and take away their benefits. After all, they're just suffering from post-traumatic syndrome; they're a little crazy, but they can still work in factory--oh wait, they moved all the industry to China.

Dexter Greer

Massachusetts raised the fuel taxes in the late 1980s and then the legislators stole more than $10 billion of tax dollars, and the roads and bridges got nothing.

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