9:24 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF
Over the balance of this year, you are likely to hear more and more about our broken Highway Funding system. For instance, William Moore, of the consultancy group Vianovo and member of the Transportation Transformation Group, wrote at Infra Insight this last 13 March that:
Absent swift action by Congress, state departments of transportation will begin to have cash flow problems that could delay payments to vendors and slow projects. Without action by the fall, new projects may have to be shelved until Congress can resolve the funding crisis that confronts the Highway Trust Fund.
However, this is just the most visible layer of pending crisis in our highway funding system. Even if we were to fix the threat to engage in spending at status quo levels,status quo spending has been falling behind the damage done by cars and trucks to our roads for decades, and even if we were to fund our transportation to address the massive shortfall in maintaining our current highway system, we have not seriously begun in addressing the fact that our current transport system is one of our principle contributor’s to our economy’s present climate change suicide course.
We have a trebly broken highway funding system, and there is no guarantee that we will actually address the simplest of the problems.
The good news is that we do not need massive technological breakthroughs to fix this triple layer cake of crisis. The bad news is that what we do need is a political movement with both the focus and the clout to push the existing available solutions onto the table, in the face of determined status quo resistance … and those who have at least glanced at our political system over the past decade would be aware that building such a movement is a “to be solved by reader” kind of problem.
The Road Funding Crisis You Will Hear About: The Highway Trust Fund
The nature of the road funding crisis that you will hear about is straightforward. We have federal fuel taxes that pay into the Highway and Transit trust funds, and then projects and other funding are approved that draws upon those trust funds. Back in the 90′s, when we last set the rates of Federal gas and diesel taxes, they were set in nominal terms without an inflation index.
So every year, the federal gasoline tax rate of 18.4 cents per gallon and the federal diesel tax rate of 24.4 cents per gallon sees a reduction in the real tax burden on motorists and truck freight … slower, when inflation is slow, and faster when inflation is fast, but, from the CAP fact sheet on the issue:
- In inflation-adjusted terms, the gas tax is worth only 11.5 cents today.
- In 1993, the gas tax represented 18 percent of the cost of an average gallon of gasoline. Today, it represents only 5 percent.
- If gas and diesel taxes had been indexed to keep pace with inflation, today they would be 29 cents and 38 cents per gallon, respectively.
But the ongoing, slow and hidden cuts in fuel taxes, year after year and decade after decade, is only half of the story. After all, if the indexing was the only problem, then the funds could be restored by simply enacting an “index plus”, such as adding 0.1 cents plus an index correction each quarter, until the gas tax caught up to its original value of 29 cents a gallon in 2014 dollar.
The gas tax never actually covered any part of the costs of burning gasoline, which as we now know includes not just the pollution of dumping poisons into our atmosphere, but also includes the more insidious but, it turns out, more dangerous dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere … which is essential to life on our planet, but which in ever increasing concentrations in the atmosphere as we dump millions of years worth of naturally sequestered carbon is highly likely to cause sufficiently severe climate change that it will wreck our ability to have a national economy and national society.
Instead, what the gas tax covered was a fraction of the costs imposed by cars and trucks on public and semi-public right of ways. That damage is done by the vehicle relative to the weight of the vehicle ~ the vehicle axle load and the number of axles ~ and so if vehicles were to become more efficient, then there would be a reduction in the gas tax per passenger mile (for cars) and per ton-mile (for trucks) even if we were to restore fuel tax levels in real terms. And that is, indeed, the fourth point in the Center for American Progress dot points:
- The corporate average fuel-economy standards will rise to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025. This will approximately double the efficiency of vehicles compared to current levels and dramatically reduce the amount of tax revenue flowing to the HTF, crippling federal surface transportation programs.
To make things still worse, a large part of the electorate harbors the fantasy that gas taxes “pay” for the costs of roads, when the reality is, as Washington Cycle points out: