A Washington newspaper published an op-ed the other day calling for more investment in transportation, with a special emphasis on hiking the stagnant federal fuel tax. It’s hardly a surprise that the author is Jim Ely, an executive with HNTB Corp., a national civil engineering and construction management firm. Businesses of all kinds, particularly road builders, but led by the broad-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have advocated this for years.
What is surprising is that the article was published by the Washington Examiner, a noted conservative paper.
At MN2020, we’ve also promoted gas tax increases as a sustainable, easily collected way to finance roads, bridges and, at the federal level, transit, bicycling and walking infrastructure, too. Mostly, however, policymakers of all stripes have rejected boosting this longtime user fee. They fear backlash from voters who might notice a new drain on their pocketbooks amid all the gyrations of gasoline market prices.
Ely mostly ignores this rub, noting recent Gallup Poll findings that two-thirds of drivers oppose raising the gas tax but also citing 50 percent-plus support in a 2010 San Jose State University study. “Clearly, Congress and the president could make a case for asking motorists to pay more,” Ely wrote.
In changing times, maybe not. Americans have been driving less for the past decade as more efficient, Earth-friendly modes (everything else) and a return to walkable urban living gain adherents. We’ve come so far that calls for tearing down city freeways, once considered laughable, have gained a spot in serious debate.
Don’t get me wrong. Driving, still far and away the most popular form of U.S. mobility, ought to bear more of its public costs than the 50 percent or so that it does now. But Ely and other business proponents mislead us with statistics such as “a staggering 32 percent” return on highway investment from 1960 to 1990.
That was then, the heyday of Interstate construction; this is now. Returns on new highways these days struggle to break even. The great challenge going forward is to maintain most of the roads and bridges we already have and carefully assess new right-of-way in light of its real economic prospects. As cities re-densify, few such proposals will make the grade.
New efficiencies (e.g. warm mix asphalt, featured in another Hindsight post) can help highway departments step up maintenance. If that falls short, however, the bill to stay ahead of deterioration should be presented to the people and businesses that use the roads, ideally via higher gas taxes.