State Transportation Woes Have Common Thread


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North Carolina is suffering from an increase in the cost of asphalt. Asphalt is made of petroleum derivatives, and its cost has increased 25% since the end of 2006. This is causing the state to cut back on road repaving projects which are likely to cost more money to accomplish the longer they go unrepaired.

In Missouri, the state has a projected $1 billion transportation fund deficit. It is only expected to be able to meet 40% of obligations starting July 2009. In spite of this, all three major candidates for Missouri Governor pledge not to raise the state motor fuels tax. The two Republican gubernatorial contenders, Sarah Steelman and Kenny Hulshof suggest dedicating general funds revenue to transportation and privatizing some state roadways respectively.

Virginia is currently confronting a "growing bridge and road maintenance shortfall" which is depriving money from road construction. Governor Tim Kaine has recently released a proposal to raise vehicle registration fees and sales taxes on vehicles, while keeping the state fuel tax unchanged.

These states have in common a tendency to tinker around the edges of transportation funding policy while failing to address the taboo topic of gas taxes. The root cause of these transportation troubles is that the gas tax has been kept too low to finance the transportation needs in all these states.

Most states have a "per gallon" gas tax that leaves them unable to cope with rising costs of transportation as inflation erodes the value of the tax collected on each gallon. North Carolina's gas tax has been capped at 29.9 cents since 2006 due to pressure from anti-tax activist Bill Graham, although it was formerly readjusted to reflect price changes twice a year. Missouri has not raised its gasoline tax since 1996 and Virginia's gasoline tax has stayed constant since 1992. None of these states index their gasoline tax either to transportation costs or the general inflation rate.

Sometimes even a major crisis is not enough to get politicians to consider gas tax adjustments. Due to Iowa's recent flooding, Iowa's legislature is likely to convene an emergency session to confront their newly pressing infrastructure needs and find sources of funds for disaster recovery. Legislators rejected efforts to raise the gasoline tax earlier in the year to fill the $200 million highway maintenance deficit, opting instead to tinker around the edges and simply raise vehicle registration fees. But even now, the Iowa House Majority Leader considers a hike in the gasoline tax "an absolute, absolute last resort," with gas selling for $4/gallon.

Even a spectacular tragedy is sometimes not enough to get politicians to wake up. Before the August 2007 Minnesota I-35W bridge collapse, Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill raising the gasoline tax 7.5 cents per gallon, calling it "an unnecessary and onerous burden" as consumers were paying $3 per gallon for gasoline in May 2007. This was in a state that hadn't adjusted its gasoline tax in 19 years. Not even a bridge collapse and transportation funding shortfall of nearly $2 billion were enough to change the governor's position that gas taxes are anathema. Needed road and bridge repairs were being neglected, with obviously dire consequences. Fortunately, Minnesota lawmakers were finally able to override Governor Pawlenty's veto in February, raising the gas tax by 8.5 cents.

For many, there will never be a "right time" to raise the gas tax. It wasn't the right time at $2 per gallon in 2005 when Gov. Pawlenty first vetoed a gas tax increase, nor at $3 per gallon in 2007, nor now at $4 per gallon. In fact, it's never the "right time" to raise any kind of tax... no one wants to pay more than they have to. But sometimes in order fund vital services policymakers need to come together and bite the bullet as they did in Minnesota, even if it is politically difficult.

Opponents have sometimes successfully argued that raising the gasoline tax would be regressive and particularly damaging to the economy in such a car-dependent nation. But gas tax increases can be done in conjunction with progressive measures, such as raising the Earned Income Tax Credit and creating a refundable gas tax credit as was done in Minnesota and proposed in Virginia.

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