A Bumpy Ride


A Bumpy Ride

The future of highway funding in a world going green.

Bookmark and Share by Kip Tabb


It is an article of faith that we can hop in our cars any time we’d like and drive wherever our wanderlust takes us. It has been that way for almost 100 years.

It is, however, an expensive article of faith.

It is not the travel, though, that is so expensive—the cars of today are far more efficient than any in history. It is the highways, the roads, the bridges, the asphalt and concrete that knit this country together that have become so costly.
Yet even that may not be a completely accurate statement. Surely, highway construction has become more expensive, but the problem is not the expense—it is how we pay for that expense.

It can be argued that our highway funding is a victim of our success. Although not the only source of funds, according to a report from the National Governors Association, half of state highway funds come from state and federal fuel taxes. As cars have become more and more efficient, we are paying less for the miles we’re driving.
Additionally, on the federal level and in almost every state as well, including Virginia, the gas tax has not been increased since the 1980s. “Our state tax is 17.5 cents,” says State Sen. John Miller of the first district (York, Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson).

“That hasn’t changed since 1986. Today it’s worth 8 cents.”

Virginia was the first state (colony, in this case) to mandate how its roads would be funded, or if not funded, built. In 1632 the House of Burgess passed a law providing that “Highwayes shall be layd in such convenient places as are requisite ... ” The law further provided that each man in the colony would work on the roads a given number of days every year. (A History of Roads in Virginia, VA DOT, 2006).

Regardless of how the state went about building and maintaining its roads, it was inadequate to meet the needs of a changing nation.

The United States in the late 19th and early 20th century was an agrarian society with almost no paved roads. And what roads there were, were generally conceded to be inadequate even for horse and mule. Roads were so bad in 1893 that Congress created the “Office of Road Inquiry” to study the state of the nation’s roads and make recommendations.

In 1904, nine years after the Duryea brothers established the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, the first car company in the United States, the Office of Road Inquiry reported of the more than two million miles of rural roads in the country, only a few hundred miles were suitable for motor vehicles. That same year, automobile production rose to 22,000 vehicles.

The automobile was the perfect invention for the wide open spaces of the United States. With its promise of unfettered speed and limitless distance, it captured both the American spirit and imagination, although it was not very practical at first.
The public wanted, and the country needed, better roads, but the states had not yet decided how to pay for them.

In 1919 Oregon passed the first fuel tax law in the country—1 cent per gallon. In 1923 Virginia Gov. Trinkle imposed a temporary 3 cent gas tax pending the outcome of a highway bond referendum. The referendum was defeated ... the gas tax in Virginia is now 17.5 cents per gallon. The federal government became a part of the fuel tax equation, including a 1 cent per gallon tax in the 1932 budget—a tax that is now 18.4 cents.

It was an elegant and straightforward solution. For all intents and purposes the only people paying the tax to build and maintain the roads were the people using the roads.

It was the revenue from those taxes that funded the expansion of highways during the Great Depression and ultimately led to the creation of the interstate highway system of today.

The system that built those highways is still in place today, but the money to pay for those roads is not.

The European model of heavy taxation on gas consumption coupled with a massive infusion of money for mass transit systems is not a system that has been utilized in the United States. Given the long distances between urban centers and the early emphasis on developing a transportation network for farmers to get their product to market, it is difficult to see how that type of mass transit system could be superimposed on a 21st-century American road network.
Under any circumstances, the type of taxation that would be needed to create that type of system is not politically viable. In fact, almost any additional form of gas tax increase is political suicide. “Governors face a dilemma between the need to find sufficient revenue to meet expanded transportation demands and the political unpopularity of increasing transportation user fees.” (Comments of Raymond C. Scheppach, National Governors Association executive director, winter 2007).

For the rest of this article see the April 2010 issue of Hampton Roads Magazine


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