My Turn: Not enough money for highways? Stop spending on non-highway boondoggles
I have noted with interest the increasing drumbeat in support of a gas tax increase, culminating last week with both a feature article and an editorial in the Monitor. Talking points include these:
Cars get better gas mileage than they used to. There are more electric and hybrid cars than there used to be. People are driving less. All these things mean less gas sold and less gas tax revenue.
Inflation has eroded the state’s purchasing power. Our gas tax rate is the lowest in the region and hasn’t been increased in 21 years. “(W)ithout more money,” says Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement, we’ll have “not just economic trouble but significant safety issues: snow-covered roads . . . , massive layoffs . . . and an inability to finish the widening of I-93.”
Words like “desperate” and “catastrophic” are used for emphasis.
Nowhere is there mention of how much highway money is spent on non-highway projects or how that affects the state highway program.
New Hampshire has spent multiple millions of highway dollars building parking lots and bus stations in Portsmouth, Concord, Salem and Londonderry. Highway dollars have been used to acquire buses and subsidize bus service to downtown Boston and Park & Fly service to Logan and Manchester airports, benefiting commuters who don’t really need subsidies. If one processes the numbers for recently initiated bus service between Concord, Manchester and the Manchester Airport, one sees the average bus occupancy is two.
Highway funds have been used to build train stations in Dover, Durham and Exeter and to add track in the Downeaster rail right of way, supporting train service that is so cost inefficient, it has to be subsidized at the rate of $8 million per year.
While the Downeaster’s annual operating subsidy is paid by the state of Maine, it’s worth noting that the subsidy comes from federal highway funds (gas and diesel taxes) and car rental taxes imposed on Maine tourists.
Since the Monitor editorial (“A 21st-century way to pay for roads,” Jan. 8) brings up the subject of federal gas taxes, I’ll point out that 2.86 cents of every 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax (15.5 percent) is skimmed off the top and put into a mass transit account. Then, 15.44 cents goes into the highway account, and billions of those dollars are later spent on transit projects but logged as highway expenditures. Taxpayers – and editors – can be forgiven if they can’t follow that bouncing ball.
Nationwide, the highway tax has been the cash cow for transit projects. The federal answer to declining revenue? Raise the gas tax. Of course. (New Hampshire congressional delegation, please take notice.)
Back to New Hampshire. Last year the state spent $3.7 million on a passenger rail feasibility study. Ten months earlier – yes, before the feasibility study was even launched – the state had already awarded Nashua $6.5 million in highway funds to build a rail station parking lot in downtown Nashua, according to the Nashua Telegraph. Thus, at least $10.2 million was spent on rail at the same time as many of our elected representatives were trying to push through a 12-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, based in large measure on the premise that there isn’t enough money to widen Interstate 93, or plow, or resurface roads.
How many round trips to Alaska could a Department of Transportation plow truck make with $10.2 million?
It seems a foregone conclusion that drivers are to be punished for the crime of reducing their fuel consumption. The debate now centers only on whether they will be sentenced to higher gas tax rates or condemned to a future of potholed, snow covered, congested roads.
The talking points don’t mention what impact there will be, if any, on bus riders or passenger trains. Will bus riders who commute to Massachusetts for better-paying jobs, or to Logan or Manchester airports, continue to enjoy the subsidies provided by gas-tax paying drivers? Or will bus riders, too, be made to pay the full cost of their personal transportation?
So far, neither ongoing bus subsidies nor the future of passenger rail appear to be in jeopardy. Note that Clement has not mentioned laying off bus drivers or putting the brakes on the multimillion-dollar rail study.
If highway budgets really are constrained, one would think the state would spend its limited highway revenue on highways, rather than embarking on frivolous non-highway projects with doubtful or no benefits.
I’m not suggesting the state does not need a gas tax increase. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t.
But as long as the state continues to spend millions of supposedly scarce highway dollars on non-highway boondoggles, it is beyond disingenuous for the state to be simultaneously whining about not having enough highway money for highways.
(Dick Lemieux lives in Concord.)