States Seek Solutions For Transportation Funding

Maybe it’s me… I just can’t understand some things no matter how many times I hear them or who says them. I’ve read, listened to and watched people from all walks of life, all degrees of education and intelligence, all make, basically, the same statement: “Don’t raise the gas tax.” “Don’t have a vehicle mileage tax (VMT).” The other day this guy said, “ I commute a lot so I’d be paying a lot more than the guy who doesn’t…”

No kiddin’, Joe Commuter… and who’s contributing more to the wear and deterioration of the roads you are traveling? The people who don’t use them?

There are a couple of definite facts:

  • We all want better roads
  • We all want to travel safely
  • We all want our bridges to be in excellent condition
  • We all want to minimize congestion and gridlock
  • We all want to be able to travel as easily and directly as possible
  • And, for the most part we all understand that some one has to pay for all this.

Ok. Let’s have the federal government pay for our roads.

Where does the government get its money? No, not a printing press, although, it seems like that’s where it comes from right now. The government gets its money from us. It really is our money and we pay our government to manage it and handle its distribution.

Consider how some states are addressing this real, very real problem. If you are uncertain about the seriousness of this problem, visit with the people who live in Minnesota, especially in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. Do we need more bridges to collapse before we accept the cold, hard facts that our transportation infrastructure needs help and that help has to come from us?

I hope not.

Massachusetts is having transportation infrastructure problems. But, Massachusetts is doing something about them. A 19 cent per gallon gas tax will go a long way towards solving some of those problems. But note, business leaders are saying that the increase should go up to 25 cents per gallon.

Pull out your calculator and play with the numbers just a little. If you fill a 20 gallon tank, it would cost only $5.00 more. If you filled up once a week, that’s $260.00 for an entire year. How much did you spend on your flat screen TV? Or your cell phone? Or how much do you drop on drinks when you go out for dinner?

Minnesota couldn’t ignore its transportation infrastructure problems. It got to see them everyday on the news for months. Other states, like Oregon, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Michigan are trying to implement different approaches to paying for their transportation infrastructure needs before tragedy strikes again.

Yes, we need to look at light rail, increased public transit, high-speed rail and anything else that can reduce the volume of road miles we travel. There are endless benefits for everyone that comes along with mass transit. But, how do we pay for it? Let the country make the investment? Remember we are the country. The money the government spends comes out of our pockets.

Take a look at what some are doing to gain some control over these problems. Transportation stimulus dollars are limited and are not enough to correct the situation; they are only sufficient to get us going so we can once again take care of ourselves.

One of the biggest topics of conversation in Massachusetts these days is the proposed additional 19 cent gas tax which would go toward roads, bridges, regional transit authorities and public transit improvements throughout the state. More than half of state and local bridges of 20 feet or longer are structurally deficient, while 82 percent of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s (MBTA) rapid transit rail cars are in poor or marginal condition, according to a report by The Road Information Program (TRIP). Furthermore, a 2007 report by the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission found that “the condition of our roads, bridges and transit systems are all in broad decline…we have no money for transit or highway enhancements or expansions without further sacrificing our existing systems and exacerbating our problems.”

Governor Deval Patrick’s 19 cent gas tax breaks down in the following way:

  • 4 cents to prevent proposed toll increases
  • 6 cents to preserve MBTA services and prevent fare increases
  • 1 cent for “innovative gas and toll solutions”
  • 1.5 cents for regional transit authorities
  • 1.5 cents for targeted regional road projects
  • 3 cents for rail projects outside Boston
  • 2 cents to end the practice of paying employee salaries with bond funds

The gas tax increase was received more favorably than an alternate proposal of $7 tunnel and turnpike tolls. MassPIRG, Alternatives for Community and Environment, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Massachusetts Business Roundtable, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, A Better City, National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, Massachusetts and the 495/MetroWest Corridor Partnership are some of the political supporters that make up the diverse mix of environmental, social justice, and business groups who recognize the economic and environmental benefits of infrastructure investment.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that there is actually support for an even higher gas tax of 25 cents. Environmental and transit advocates favor a bill by Rep. Carl Sciortino (D) and Rep. Alice Wolf (D) to earmark a 12 cent gas hike that goes directly to the MBTA to put it on a stable financial footing for the long term given its $8 billion debt burden, the largest in the nation, and an estimated $19 billion of infrastructure maintenance costs over the next 20 years that are needed system-wide. Massachusetts has not had a gas tax increase since 1991, and Gov. Patrick is also looking at phasing in the gas tax increase, much like HB 644 that was just passed in the New Hampshire House of Representatives with a 15 cent hike on gasoline spread over three years.

Other states are also grappling with their own transportation budget woes. Last session, Minnesota legislators recognized the dire need to fund road and bridge construction after the collapse of the I-35W B
ridge
and passed the first gas tax increase (SF 946) in twenty years, overriding Governor Tim Pawlenty’s veto.

Nationally, public transit ridership rose to a high of 10.7 billion trips in 2008 (a record high since 1952), an overall increase of 4 percent from 2007, while vehicle miles traveled on our nation’s roads declined by 3.6 percent in 2008.

Congressman Jim Oberstar (D), Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently called for a mix of increases on gas taxes and mileage taxes as a fix for states facing large transportation budget deficits, while the White House recently rejected the idea of a mileage tax.

The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission has also suggested a temporary 10-cent increase to be followed by a roughly 2-cent fee-per-mile charge as the main revenue for all transportation projects by 2020.

States are also examining alternatives to gas tax increases:

  • Oregon is discussing both a gas tax and a gas tax alternative in the form of VMT after a pilot program conducted in 2007 that replaced the state’s 24 cent per gallon tax with a 1.2cent per mile charge. However, unlike the gas tax, this option treats fuel efficient vehicles and gas-guzzling Hummers equally, which removes an environmental and economical incentive to buy greener cars.
  • North Carolina’s Research Triangle is currently running a mileage tax pilot program of 200 participants to obtain concrete data. Drivers will be recruited this fall to road-test a satellite-technology system that might be used to collect highway taxes on every mile we drive – replacing the gas tax on every gallon we buy. The $16.5 million Road User Charge Study will enlist drivers in six states to determine whether the technology works, and whether Americans would accept a new mileage tax. The federal government and 15 states, including North Carolina, are paying for the study to find a fair, reliable revenue source that can keep pace with growing transportation needs.
  • Rhode Island’s Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation suggests a combination of increased tolls, fuel taxes, car registration fees and a new mileage tax since more than half of the state’s roads are in fair, poor or “failed” condition, according to the Department of Transportation. 164 bridges of 772 are classified as structurally deficient.
  • Michigan is looking at moving from a flat rate tax to a percentage tax on the overall cost which would fluctuate with gasoline prices. A steady funding stream for transportation infrastructure that works means that workers can get to their jobs easily without the hassle of shoddy roads and bridges, $7 dollar tolls, and broken down trains.

(Note: To see a video on how the car is equipped for the study and what is recorded by the government, go to: http://www.roaduserstudy.org/howitworks.aspx)

Increasing taxes is never popular, but at times it is unavoidable. Most people would agree that investing in our infrastructure is a definite plus, not only as a step in improving our current economy, but, also as a step towards insuring our continued economic growth. We need to think of our current problems as opportunities to build a better future.

Greg Sitek

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