Bad highways? Blame politics, technology, new driving habits

It’s July of 2023, and, just 20 years after President Bush decided to spend $1.2 billion to develop hydrogen fuel-cell technologies for vehicles, you’ve just picked up your finally-ready-for-prime-time luxury BMW Hydrogen 7. Your neighbors, stuck with the crappy next-generation of GM’s electric but ill-fated EV-1, will be jealous.

You’re eager to get that water-emissions-only Beemer out on the open road and see what it’ll do. But the road won’t be that open any more, and the road’s lousy condition is likely to chew up your umpteen-thousand-dollar green-mobile’s undercarriage. The road just plain sucks because politicians haven’t been able to stop themselves from screwing around with the federal highway trust fund. That leaves the ride bumpy and, no doubt, unsafe.

Congress created the highway trust fund in 1956 to maintain the 40,000 miles of interstate highway President Eisenhower had begun to build to bolster national defense. Congress directed that federal motor fuel and motor vehicle taxes, which used to go into the general fund, go directly to the highway trust fund. Congress originally intended the fund to be solely used for the nation’s highways — but that didn’t last long. Congress long ago dipped into the fund to siphon off money for mass transit. That was its first diversion.

Today, those fuel taxes still prop up the highway trust fund, which is a principal source of highway maintenance money. That 18-cent (18.4, actually, and 24.4 for diesel) tax that presidential candidate John McCain wants to park temporarily to “give you a holiday” from $4 a gallon gasoline is all we’ve got for fixing the nation’s roads.

Well, the trust fund’s in trouble — big trouble. The Treasury Department says the fund faces a $3.2 billion deficit for fiscal 2009. That, Treasury says, would result in $13.5 billion less in federal funding that flows to the states for maintaining highways. Ah, you think: The states can make up the shortfall for fixing potholes (let alone shoring up unsafe highway bridges and overpasses.)

Nope. They’ve got their own money woes (public employee pensions, unfunded federal mandates, health care, underfunded public schools, overburdened property-tax payers, etc.). Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia face an estimated combined $48 billion in budget shortfalls for fiscal 2009. So the states won’t be passing out money to pave over those potholes — or fund the $65 billion needed to inspect and repair the 78,000 bridges identified as deficient by the feds.

The roads will need more, not less, maintenance because the federal highways are going to get more, not less use, especially by heavy trucks. Says the Federal Highway Administration: “By 2020, more than 25,000 miles of highway are likely to carry over 5,000 commodity-carrying trucks each day. Roughly one-fifth of that mileage will be significantly congested.”

Some of those trucks will be longer — and therefore heavier. Congress approved and the Federal Highway Administration enacted a rule that lengthened the limit for trucks with trailers from 75 feet to 97 feet. That’s more wear and tear on the roadway.

That leaves us with roads now in bad shape getting even worse in the future. But the highway trust fund is increasingly unlikely to be the means to achieve driveable, safe roads — because of changes in driving habits, technology, and especially politics.

Less money will flow into the the trust fund. Even though the cost of gasoline has been climbing dramatically, the federal fuel excise tax has not. People are cutting back on driving. The federal Department of Transportation says Americans collectively drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April compared with the same month last year, reports The Hill. Americans’ demand for gasoline is declining as prices increase. That means fewer fuel tax dollars flowing into the highway trust fund.

Americans, however, because the population of legal-age drivers will grow, will eventually drive more in the long run — but on vehicles that use less gasoline (we hope). Net result remains the same: Less fuel tax money but more highway use — and cracked, crumbling pavement.

On top of that, many politicians such as Sen. McCain want to suspend the fuel excise for varying lengths of time. Such a short-term, mock populist, pandering move would have long-term consequences on the highway trust fund — and therefore, on the roads it’s supposed to maintain.

It’s ironic: Politicians clamor for alternative-fuel vehicles — electric, hybrid, solar, fuel cell — but pay little attention to the fundamental mechanism that maintains the highways on which those cool, carbon-less putt-putts would drive. As gasoline use declines, so does the fuel tax money on which the highway trust fund depends.

As it is, Congress owes the highway trust fund $8 billion. In 1998, when the trust fund was fat and happy, Congress moved that $8 billion from the trust fund to the transportation department’s general fund — and hasn’t put it back. Several attempts this year have failed.

The condition of the nation’s roads will worsen over the next few decades, if not longer. Deferred maintenance, due largely to the lack of political courage and wisdom, will continue to plague the nation’s transportation system, allowing it to deteriorate further.

Your cool new fuel-cell Beemer better be strongly built. Otherwise the potholes will eat it alive.

4 replies »

  1. Pingback:
  2. Well, clearly infrastructure is just not cool enough. Perhaps it needs a PR firm and a slick ad campaign. Or we could build alternative fuel hovercrafts: end fenderbenders and never mind the potholes.

    I once read that Ike’s highway plan was actually an end run around the Pentagon. That is, a way to use military money for civilian uses. And the national defense argument was just a good way to shut the MIC up. Anyone know the truth?

  3. I’m actually not too concerned about the gas tax and future vehicles. Once the collections start being seriously impacted by fuel efficiency, I bet the government will start putting on a vehicle property tax for the roads paid yearly or tolls will start springing up. They will find another way to generate revenue.

    Lara Amber