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U.S. Roads Are In Terrible Shape: How Would You Fix Them?

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Highway traffic

Highway traffic

Here's what we know about the state of America's highways and byways:

1. Many roads in the U.S. are in desperate need of repairs or upgrades. In 2009 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our roadway system a D-minus. According to Pew Research, over a third of U.S. roads are in "substandard" condition, and a quarter of our bridges are crumbling. 

2. Funds for repairs and upgrades come from the federal gas tax.

3. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel was set in 1993 and hasn't been increased since.

4. Thanks to inflation, the federal gas tax now pays for about half the repairs that it did in 1993.

5. Although Americans are driving less than they once did, we also have more vehicles in use -- the end result being that U.S. roads see about 3 trillion miles of travel each year, which is roughly equivalent to 8,000 trips across the solar system.

6. The federal gas tax can't keep up with the cost of repairing all that wear and tear.

7. Something has to change.

Bear in mind that maintaining our roads isn't just about easing traffic congestion and filling potholes. Poor road quality is a huge safety hazard, and some have suggested it might partially explain the uptick in traffic fatalities we've witnessed in the first half of 2012.

So, what to do? The Wall Street Journal recently posed this same question and offered a few potential solutions to the gas tax problem:

Raise the gas tax? In theory, this is the most straightforward solution, and it's supported by many folks in the auto industry. But of course, raising the gas tax would require getting all of Congress onboard, which wouldn't be easy. Raising taxes is difficult in the best of times, and much more so given America's stop-start economy and the fractious nature of D.C. politics. 

Tax oil? Taxing barrels of oil isn't all that different from taxing gallons of gas. However, an oil tax might be easier to institute because it's not aimed directly at consumers. Those consumers would, of course, end up paying the tax in the long run, but by moving the tax further back in the consumption cycle, its impact would be less visible (and maybe more palatable) to Everyday Joes and Janes.

Tax roads? Many states already do this with toll roads, bridges, and so on. The improvement on toll roads is very visible to motorists, and the cost could be an incentive for some folks to drive less, which would reduce congestion. However, creating toll roads involves instituting pay stations, toll tag programs, and other expenses, which would eat into revenue.

Tax miles the miles people drive? While this hasn't been instituted by any states just yet, it's already being done by auto insurers via "pay-as-you-drive" discounts. Progressive's Snapshot program, for example, uses a simple onboard device to track customers' driving habits, including the distance they travel each month. Drive less, and generally, you pay less. The technological hurdles of instituting this kind of program at a national level are daunting, but some have proposed a workaround by putting states in charge of the tax, with odometer checks (and subsequently, tax assessments) conducted during annual auto inspections. In fact, last year, the Congressional Budget Office suggested that a pay-as-you-go system could be the most effective way to maintain tax revenues down the line.

Tax cars? There are over 250 million passenger vehicles registered in the U.S. Adding a tax of $4 per year for each of those vehicles would generate an additional $1 billion in revenue, but like all taxes directly targeted to consumers, it wouldn't be a popular move.


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Comments (7)
  1. Any attempt at rebuilding the roads must include implementation of smart road technologies. We waste millions of barrels of oil idling at empty intersections or coming to a stop just as the signal changes.
     
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  2. Our infrastructure is vital to maintaining our economy & way of life. Without decent highways, roads, and bridges trucks can't move product & Americans can't drive to & from work. It is obvious that we need to better fund repairing & maintaining our roads. We need to raise the fuel tax & I would gladly pay a $10 vehicle fee a year for the privilege of driving on decent roads and over safe bridges. Unfortunately in our current hyperpartisan political climate our politicians will continue to let our infrastructure crumble to give the wealthy more tax breaks. This will haunt us unless we show some political courage and pay the piper.
     
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  3. First, change the tax structure so that electric or hybrid cars, (including the new diesel fuel ones) are charged per mile and a yearly road tax. Tie it to inflation.
    Also, charge semi trucks more and so much a foot on the type of trailer and its length. They tear up the roads.
    Electric and hybrid autos should not get any Tax deductions, etc. period.
    Those drivers (non gas users are just getting gas tax welfare!
     
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  4. 1) The big made-in-china box stores should pay more for all the trucks. They create the most wear and tear, and it's probably not proportional to the taxes. It should not come out of the drivers pocket.
    2) Rethink our roadways for the smaller and lighter vehicles that we should be driving and that trends are supporting. The existing system is unsustainable and unnecessary.
    3) Promote telecommuting, bus rapid transit and light rail.
     
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  5. Nothing is ever easy, but funds can be raised via usage, e.g., tolls. There's no need to construct toll booths with today's technology, just do it with photo cameras. And then double the tolls for trucks over a certain length, i.e., 18 wheelers (I hear the screaming now), since they effect much more wear and tear on the roadways. And that's a fact. If the friggin congress can get off of its collective butt and get this done, it will go a long way toward solving our unemployment problems too. OK, it's gov't funding but wages paid to the highway workers "trickles" into the economy a hell of a lot quicker that a tax break to some mega business and its CEO.
     
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  6. The US has outsourced much of it's manufacturing offshore and in doing so has sent much of it's wealth offshore also. The state of the roads is reflective of the state of the economy. The roads in China are becoming very nice, lot's of good freeways going in. So I guess it's nice for Americans to know their money is at least being put to good use somewhere.
     
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  7. Increasing fuel tax until the maintenance budget is balanced is the only reasonable option. It automatically charges the heaviest and most damaging vehicles the most. Hybrids and electrics get off easy as they should. No per mile tax since it is in our nations best interest to get off of oil from unfriendly nations. Once we are, the trillions saved in wars for oil will easily cover our infrastructure and the need for the tax will fade away.
     
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