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.
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.
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