In developed nations, we expect certain things from our transportation infrastructure. We expect sufficient capacity for our transportation needs. We expect it to function efficiently and to get us where we need to go. We expect it to be built and rebuilt according to our needs.
We also expect our infrastructure not to violently collapse under our vehicles, sending us plummeting hundreds of feet into a cold and deep river, leaving us with only seconds to escape before our cars flood and we drown, assuming that we aren’t stunned, injured or killed outright by the impact with the water and that we haven’t been pinned down under a 300-ton girder.
Unfortunately, that last expectation was not met sufficiently May 23, when the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state collapsed suddenly, the second collapse of a major U.S. interstate highway bridge in less than six years. The other, of course, was the I-35W bridge in Minnesota, which resulted in numerous fatalities. The I-5 bridge collapse did not result in fatalities, thankfully, but it did result in a major piece of infrastructure being put out of service for months, which is serious enough.
The I-5 bridge was not listed as “structurally deficient,” but it was “functionally obsolete,” and more importantly, “fracture critical.” That last one means that the bridge, though safe normally, would collapse if any one of its structural members was removed or broken. This was all well and good for 50 years, of course, but then the unthinkable happened: A truck hit the bridge! Incredible! Who would have thought a truck would hit the bridge, which only carries thousands of trucks each day? This unforeseen incident resulted in an entire span collapsing. This is simply a thing you don’t expect out of a developed nation.
The fact is that our infrastructure is degrading at an alarming rate. Look at the Tappan Zee Bridge, which is essentially a pile of rust held together with spit and prayers, that carries a major interstate highway. Closer to home, look at the Norristown High-Speed Line bridge over the Schuylkill River, which will be closed indefinitely this summer because the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority cannot afford to repair it. There are more than 500 “structurally deficient” bridges in the greater Philadelphia area alone and simply no money to repair or replace all of them.
So how do we fix our infrastructure? The only real answer is that we’re just going to have to bite the bullet and pay taxes in accordance with the infrastructure we have.
The original federal gas tax was set at one cent per gallon in 1932, which is 21 cents in 2013 dollars. The federal gas tax today is 17 cents per gallon, four cents less than its true value in 1932. In the meantime, we’ve built thousands of miles of expensive-to-maintain interstate highways, tens of thousands of miles of high-speed arterial roads, and hundreds of thousands of bridges. Actual revenue has declined in that time, and the government simply does not have the money to pay for the infrastructure that exists.
Couple this with increased fuel efficiency in modern vehicles and the growing popularity of hybrid and electric plug-in vehicles, and you’ve got yourself a setup for a serious revenue crisis. Public transportation takes out another piece of the pie, and most transit systems are funded through a combination of the gas tax and the farebox recovery ratio, so a decline in gas tax revenue results in higher transit fares as well. The tax revenues dedicated to our transportation infrastructure, as currently structured, can only decline in purchasing power in the future.
The fact is that not only is gas tax revenue lower than it ought to be, but it’s declining at an alarming rate, and our infrastructure is going to decline with it. What can be done? Switching the tax to a percentage of the price of gasoline rather than a flat cent value could be a start. The District of Columbia recently replaced its flat cent-per-gallon-based tax with an 8 percent wholesale gasoline tax, meaning that not only does the tax rise with inflation, but consumers don’t see the tax as much.
But this is only a stopgap solution because gasoline consumption per vehicle is only expected to fall in the future. Revenues will continue to decline, deficits will grow, and deferred maintenance will become more and more common. Eventually we’ll have to do away with the gas tax altogether and instead tax vehicles on miles driven. Sure, there will be outcry, pandemonium, and a lot of wailing and grinding of teeth, but let’s get real, folks — unless you own a large four-wheel drive SUV, extol the virtues of “rugged individualism” and are fine with caulking the wagons and floating every time you reach a major river, we’re going to have to pay for infrastructure somehow. I would hope that those of us regular folks, who might own a sedan or a sport wagon, could understand this.
Justin Roczniak is the op-ed editor of The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected].