The Break Down: The Cost Of Fixing America's Roads And Who Will Pay For It

Steve Burns
November 06, 2019 - 5:00 am
Florida bridge construction

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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America is in the midst of an infrastructure crisis. In The Break Down: Roadwork Ahead, reporters Al Jones and Steve Burns look at the issues facing our roads and dig into the cost, how we got here, and the solutions, which may rest in revolutionary thinking about cars and how we use them.  

Any trip to the gas station is usually a painful one for Ravi Patel. He has a 19.5 gallon tank to fill in his Nissan Pathfinder. He’d like to get more for his money.

“The additional taxes that we are paying is not contributing to any of the improvements in the infrastructure,” he said as the numbers on the pump whooshed by. “It makes paying that much more unbearable.”

Nobody seems to want to pay more. While there have been rumblings in Washington for years about a massive infrastructure bill, it has yet to materialize. Absent a windfall from Washington, states have realized they’ll need to go it alone if they want to generate any significant money for infrastructure projects.

The Break Down: Episode One | Episode Two

“The states, cities, metropolitan areas are not waiting for Washington to come to the rescue. They’re out doing their own things,” said Robert Puentes, the Executive Director at the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank. “They’re passing their own gasoline taxes. blue states, red states, everything in between have raised their own gas taxes in recent years. They’re going to the ballot box. They’re having voters authorize all kinds of money.”

Over the last six years, 27 states have boosted their own gas taxes. California’s went up by 12 cents per gallon, Indiana by a dime. Maryland went so far as to automatically tie future gas tax increases to the rate of inflation and the cost of fuel.

Gas Pump
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

New Jersey may have seen the rudest awakening. Its reputation as an oasis of cheap gas came to a screeching halt in 2016, when then-Governor Chris Christie boosted the gas tax by a painful 23 cents per gallon. Another increase came a few years later.

It was never supposed to be this way.

Raising money for road repairs was supposed to primarily be a federal responsibility, as outlined by President Dwight Eisenhower.

“We are pushing ahead with a great road program, a road program that will take this nation out of its antiquated shackles of secondary roads all over this country, and give us the types of highways we need,” Eisenhower declared in a 1954 speech in Detroit.

Two years later, the Federal Highway Trust Fund was established, designed to help pay for his new Interstate Highway System, and improvements to the system well into the future.

The trust fund got its money through a tax, but unlike most other taxes, this one was relatively undetectable. It was tacked on to the price at the gas pump. To University of Virginia historian Peter Norton, the idea was a stroke of political genius.

“It’s a relatively painless tax to pay. You don’t fill out any forms. You don’t see any money in any significant amount ever leave your bank account,” he said.

But the tax hasn’t been able to keep up with the nation's ever-growing maintenance bill, especially since the gas tax rate hasn’t been adjusted since 1993. It still sits at 18.4 cents per gallon.

“The gas tax is actually paying for, at best, about half of the road bill in America,” Norton said.

More fuel efficient cars, along with the growing popularity of electric vehicles have also cut in to gas tax revenues. That has left a wide disconnect in the average driver’s psyche between what they pay to drive, and what the actual costs are.

Among those drivers is New York City tow truck driver Mark Williams. He expects a bit more for all that comes out of his wallet.

“What more can I say about it? The potholes - the DOT needs to fix these things up. We pay so much money in our taxes for the roads…I don’t know, man.”

But thanks to how overused and under-maintained those roads are, costs are only expected to keep going up. And those expenses don’t only come at the gas pump and at the mechanic. Cars also have significant costs in terms of street space, road maintenance, and the environment.

“I think it’s really important to make the case about what the true cost is of these roads, and what the life cycle cost is,” said Bloomberg Transportation consultant Janette Sadik-Khan, the former Transportation Commissioner in New York. “It’s not about building just a road. You have to maintain it for the rest of your life. And that cost is somehow forgotten.”

States are trying to make that case again, some by raising gas taxes, others by going to the even more divisive topic of tolls.

At the dawn of the motor age, drivers assumed they would need to pay more for a faster, more scenic commute. Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway became one of the nation’s first toll roads when it opened in 1938. But as driving grew more popular, so did campaigns for highways to remain free. Tolled highways were soon equated with being un-American, Norton said.

“You see the calculation being made back in the 1930s, when the National Highway Users Conference, the mortal enemy of toll roads, actually drew depictions of the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord in cartoons, ‘Fighting For Your Right to Free Roads,’ when of course the roads can’t be free. They necessarily cost money,” Norton said.

That has been the slow realization in Connecticut, where the tolling debate has now come full circle after booths got removed in the 1980s, partly precipitated by a gruesome crash in 1983 in which six people were killed.

Route 1 Bridge Replacement
Tom Kaminski/WCBS 880

Now, Gov. Ned Lamont and his Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti have the unenviable task of convincing drivers that after 34 years of free travel, tolls, and the revenue they generate, are needed as roads fill up faster and faster.

For example, Giulietti looked to Interstate 84, north of Hartford.

“It was designed at some point in the future, it would carry 50,000 cars,” he said. “It’s carrying 180,000 cars a day, and it’s in desperate need of a major resifting of how we’re going to handle that traffic.”

The state can’t even think about building anything new until its current problems are addressed, Giulietti said.

“Let’s be candid about it. None of us wants to spend more money, and if there was a way to go and do it free, we’d all be doing that,” he said. “But the problem is, we’re reaching that point that our highways are at their ultimate capacity, and a major investment has to be made.”

Ultimately, Connecticut hopes to bring in $800 million per year to cover its transportation needs. Giulietti hopes to change the perception that government money all disappears into a black hole.

“It really is a quality of life discussion, because our highways are getting to that point that people are just tired of getting stuck on the highway,” he said. “But I have to be able to convince them that this is a wise investment.”