Editorial: Less gold for roads

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2008

High gasoline prices have forced consumers to drive less and buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. The result ó less fuel used ó also means less revenue from the gas tax for building and replacing roads.
The goose that for decades has laid golden eggs for transportation coffers is cutting back production. The nation will have to find another source for highway funding. Brace yourself.
The Wall Street Journal trumpeted the grim news early this week. “Funds for Highways Plummet as Drivers Cut Gasoline Use.” Americans drove 3.7 percent fewer miles in May than they did a year earlier, a fairly large drop after decades of consistent increases. The numbers hold some good news. The downward trend also translates into less oil consumption, lower emissions and less wear and tear on highways. But galloping growth and rising construction costs have caused a lot of deferred maintenance over the past decade or two. The federal government has fallen way behind in transportation funding, with a cumulative shortfall estimated at $1 trillion through 2015. North Carolina’s Department of Transportation has said it has a $65 billion funding gap between 2005 and 2030.
Among the possible solutions being floated are:
– Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has called for Congress to revamp the “antiquated” gas tax, funnel funding for some programs into a pool that cities could use as they wish and consolidate 102 federal transportation programs into eight umbrella projects, which she said would cut waste.
– Oregon has been experimenting with a tax on road use, on the basis of vehicle-miles traveled. Mileage is calculated in the vehicle and sent via transponder to devices at gas stations, according to the Progressive Pulse, a blog of N.C. Policy Watch. The tax is paid when the vehicle is re-fueled.
– A method being tested in Chapel Hill uses GPS devices and a central clearing-house to track and tax road use. (Privacy concerns may nix that.)
– Some local jurisdictions tax real property with a user or traffic fee based on the amount of traffic each parcel generates. Rates differ on the category of land use. Businesses that generate a great deal of traffic, such as fast food restaurants, would pay more than the residents in a single detached home.
No one wants to increase the gas tax. Candidates are more likely to promise tax holidays or rebates. Ultimately, however, there’s only one source the government will look to for highway funding ó taxpayers. The bottom line is raising more money from individuals and businessesó be it at the pump, through tax bills or at toll booths. There’s no way around it, unless someone can find a goose who really does lay golden eggs.