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Editorial: Better mileage, less tax revenue, crumbling roads

In 1991, a Honda Civic got 24 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. In 2013, you can buy a Honda Civic Hybrid that gets 44 mpg downtown and out on the road.

Motorists in 2013 can buy a Scion, a Ford Fiesta or a Honda CR-Z that gets 37 mpg. They can get 45 mpg with a VW Jetta Hybrid. There’s a Toyota Prius that gets 51 mpg.

That means Honda drivers, Ford drivers – and, really, the drivers of nearly any relatively new car on the road – are buying a heck of a lot less gasoline today than they did 22 years ago.

We choose that particular comparison year because it was the last time New Hampshire raised its gas tax. We’ve had the same rate for 22 years, as most drivers have needed less and less gas to fuel their cars. In other words, the same drivers, with the same driving habits, are bound to produce significantly less tax revenue for the state.

At the same time, the needs of the state’s transportation infrastructure – potholed roads, dangerous bridges, congested highways – are growing. According to TRIP, a nonprofit transportation safety group, more than a third of state-maintained roads and highways – 4,559 miles of pavement – are in need of repair.

This is the context in which we read state Senate President Chuck Morse’s comments this week – in which he declared it was not the time to raise the gas tax and that he would seek a “non-tax” solution to the state’s transportation problems. For good measure, he noted that he also opposes raising the highway tolls – the other critical source of revenue for New Hampshire roads.

New Hampshire politicians from both parties, in good economies and bad economies, have resisted such a tax increase. And it’s easy to understand the ballot-box appeal of such a stance. Trouble is, 22 years later, they are playing havoc with the state’s economy.

Do they want traffic bottled up on Interstate 93 during ski season? Do they want angry tourists sitting in endless traffic on their way to the beach in the summer?

Indeed, the Business and Industry Association’s new strategic economic plan for the state makes a priority of keeping state roads and bridges in good repair, reducing congestion for commuters and businesses, completing the I-93 widening projects between Salem and Manchester and between the Interstate 89 interchange and exit 15 in Concord, and completing the Spaulding Turnpike expansions.

In a plea to the House Public Works and Highways Committee this week, Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement warned that without more money to improve the roads, the state faces not just economic trouble but significant safety issues: snow-covered roads that can’t be quickly cleared, massive layoffs of DOT workers and an inability to finish the widening of I-93 in the southern part of the state.

What sort of magical thinking produces a non-tax solution to such a big problem? Perhaps only the magic of casino revenue, a scheme that would create its own host of problems – and a plan that the New Hampshire House has steadfastly rejected.

New Hampshire’s gas tax is the lowest in the region at 18 cents per gallon. The Massachusetts tax is 24 cents. In Vermont, it is 24.9 cents; in Maine, it is 30 cents. It’s admirable that politicians want the state to keep its edge. But impoverishing the fund that keeps our most basic infrastructure in decent repair is not worth the cost.

Last spring the Democratic House overwhelmingly approved a four-year, 12-cent increase in the gas tax to help meet the needs of the state’s roads and bridges, but it was rejected by the Republican Senate. Now Republican Sen. Jim Rausch is working on a more modest 4- or 5-cent increase, a plan that Morse also opposes.

We urge Senate Republicans to approach this plan with open minds. Casino revenue is a long shot, and in the meantime, the roads are desperate need of their attention.

Legacy Comments21

why not target the real source of road deterioration... why not increase the cost of commercial diesel? I read somewhere a while back about overloaded trucks, and that one overloaded tractor trailer can reduce the life of a road by x number of years. Why not target those doing the most damage? I believe I also read somewhere that health and human resources for NH gets a cut of the toll booth monies. why? Lets make the highway funds be used strictly for that, and not for any other department.

There are many contributors leading to the predicament facing NHDOT. Much of it is inflation, asphalt prices are up 110 percent since 2003, I could not find data to 1991. Read Clements' article from a few days ago and he gingerly side steps another major cause of funding woes, which is the NH department of safety. They siphon off a huge share of the federal dollars we receive to purchase planes, helicopters and other perceived necessities. How much has NHDOS budget increased in real dollars and as a percent of federal dollars consumed since 1991? Anyone ?

Will that tax be spend solely on road and bridges and will it be placed in a "lockbox" like Social Security? It would probably be spent on more and more social programs.

what was the total amount taken in gas tax dollars in 1991 and in 2013 adjusted for inflation? that would be an interesting stat to look at....

Excellent suggestion. Why didn't you follow up on it? Too much work? Afraid of being hoist on your petard? "On October 1, the federal gas tax will mark exactly twenty years stuck at the rate of 18.4 cents per gallon. Against a backdrop of chronic infrastructure underfunding and federal budget crises, a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) marks this anniversary and explains exactly why gas tax revenues are falling short. "A Federal Gas Tax for the Future" concludes that just 22 percent of the current gas tax revenue shortfall can be attributed to rising vehicle fuel-efficiency taking a bite out of gasoline purchases. The other 78 percent of lost gas tax revenues are due to inflation: inevitable growth in the cost of asphalt, machinery, and other construction inputs with which our twenty-year-old gas tax has not kept pace. A lot of people are focusing on hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles as the reason the gas tax is falling short," said Carl Davis, senior analyst at ITEP and author of the study. "But predictable growth in the cost of asphalt, machinery, and other construction materials has been the bigger issue by far." Davis added: "If Congress had just planned for inflation when they last overhauled the gas tax, three-quarters of the revenue shortfall we're facing today wouldn't exist. If they'd also indexed the tax to fuel efficiency, we'd have no shortfall at all."

Well you do read alot but you should not believe all that you read.

No, I cant find the data. I do know gasoline and diesel use went up every year since 1991, until 2008 and seems to be on the rise again. There seems to be many factors driving up the cost of asphalt much higher than the rate of inflation.

Let's cut to the chase. I don't think studies, fact finding, private consultants and whatever are necessary for this argument. Fact finding can be accomplished by looking at what you are driving on and over. You don't need to be a Roads Scholar (yes I know) to see that to see the need. As to raising the gas tax as a means to improve our roads I would think this would be a no brainer. Really, if you drive 800 miles a week and get say 26 MPG it would only cost you about $6 and change a month more to raise the tax a nickle. That I don't consider a bad return on investment. Weigh that against tire wear and alignments.

a liberal, progressive, democrats 1st and only solution to every one of their ...perceived...problems is to RAISE TAXES. Never once will you ever hear them even whisper the words - STOP SPENDING

The problem is that spending isn't keeping up with the wear and tear. Your oft bused "stop spending" would just cost us millions more in the long run. I am sure you are not aware that even even right wing haters like yourself as well as ordinary conservatives use our roads and bridges too. By all means lets ignor bridge maintenance and just replace them as they fall. This is why people say change their oil in their cars instead of just driving them until they die with the same oil. Try thinking about cause and effect before just playing the partisan card for once.

I'm left confused about your editorial position regarding maintaining our roads. When Maggie Hassan proposed a budget that failed to address our deteriorating road conditions, you failed to notice the omission. When the House raised the possibility of an increased gas tax, some of which would go to maintaining roads, you wrote a passionate editorial about the dire state of our roads, and how they needed to be maintained. When the possibility of the tax increase went away, and the combined legislature decided to give money to UNH instead of maintaining the roads, you didn't notice. Now that someone is proposing a new tax, you're all excited again about fixing our roads. And, as I recall, when Obama spent the largest economic stimulus in the history of America, supposedly to create jobs and create infrastructure, and none of it went to finishing I-93 in NH, you failed to comment. So, is your passion for maintaining our roads, or maintaining politicians who raise taxes?

a GUARANTEE and a CHALLENGE. I guarantee the democrats on this forum cannot list $20,000,000 in worthless programs that could be cut. Needless to say the Responsible Republicans could do it with their eyes closed.

How true, how true it is evident that Responsible Republicans, have been doing it with their eyes closed. I actually looked over roughly 100 pages of the current budget and I can safely and confidently claim that I could not list all the worthless programs. Because what I consider worthless and what you would consider worthless probably are polar opposites. That said, I can guarantee that you could no more do it than me. Usually I won't waste this much time on such a ..... post.

Sail =1 GCarson = 0

I think sail is posting with his eyes closed.

I must tip my hat to you and give you a hearty well-done. I fell for your posts hook line and sinker. I believed the mindless incoherent diatribe as being true, but you got me going. Great job of baiting.

Costs of construction materials continues to increase without any additional revenue to pay for them. Here's a great link found on NHPR's website explaining road repairs.

I don't see any data to back your point! Note that although cars get better gas mileage now, how many more cars are on the road using gas, than 22 years ago? I'd like to see some facts. What is the total gas usage compared to 22 years ago? Even if we are using less gas, this is pretty shoddy reporting!

Vehicle miles traveled per year in NH have increased 29% from 1991 to 2011. Another 25% increase is expected by 2030. Since 1991, (the last time the gas tax was increased) the value of the dollar has decreased by over 40% due to inflation. In other words, we're pounding our roads and bridges more than ever and spending on less and less on them.

Nice post. But you've got to stop confusing the issue with facts. They only get in the way of a good argument. The unwillingness of posters on the right to actually search out the facts in response to the questions they raise is noteworthy, but not surprising.

So I've noticed...

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