Editorial: A 21st-century way to pay for roads
New Hampshire’s highway trust fund is going broke. So are the highway funds of most states, as well as the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for about half the road and bridge work done in the United States. The common denominator is the historic, but failing, reliance on gasoline taxes to maintain the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
The gas tax, as we’ve argued often in the past, should be increased, if only to reflect the vastly improved vehicle fuel efficiency. But it’s time to recognize another reality. More vehicles are powered by means other than gasoline: natural gas, electricity, biofuels and the latest entry in the vehicle fuel mix, hydrogen. Fuel efficiency will continue to increase. So will the shortfall between what a fuel tax can raise and the revenue needed to maintain, let alone improve, the roads and bridges used by all.
New Hampshire raised its gasoline tax to 18 cents per gallon in 1991 and hasn’t touched it since. The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn’t been increased since 1993. Every effort to do so succumbs to a massive lobbying effort by those who benefit from keeping the tax low and the mindless anti-tax mentality that’s infected politics. As a consequence, a national infrastructure that was once the envy of the world is crumbling.
New Hampshire has 145 red-listed state bridges and an additional 353 local bridges that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The Department of Transportation, which has shed hundreds of employees in recent years, faces a $48 million deficit in fiscal year 2016 and a $105 million deficit the following year. The roads are getting worse, and the damage toll to humans, roads, vehicles and the state economy is mounting.
Several states, most notably Oregon, are experimenting with a different way to pay for roads: a user tax based on the number of miles driven. In its pilot program, one that continues in modest form, vehicle owners pay 1.5 cents per mile driven on that state’s roads. No fuel escapes taxation. Everyone in the program pays to maintain the transportation infrastructure.
A switch to such a system would have to be phased in, but it’s eminently doable. The simplest, though not the fairest system, would be based on the difference in mileage recorded when a vehicle is inspected or registered. Since the tax would be small, say $150 or $200 per year for most drivers, it generally wouldn’t exceed what the owner would have paid with a per-gallon gasoline tax. Since heavy trucks cause far more road wear than passenger vehicles, the tax could be adjusted to account for vehicle weight.
The technology exists, say using a GPS device, to ensure that the mileage tax is levied for the driving done within a given state. As in the Oregon experiment, drivers could pay the mileage tax in a variety of ways, with a surcharge at the pump, or, using a version of E-ZPass transponders, periodically via credit card. To protect privacy, the mileage information collected would not be preserved.
Congress is expected to take up two bills to address the Highway Trust Fund shortfall: one to raise the federal gas tax by 15 cents over the next three years to pay for catchup maintenance and another that would create a federal pilot program to tax motorists based on the number of miles they drive. Given the woeful state of Congress, it’s difficult to imagine that much progress will be made. But that shouldn’t stop New Hampshire from moving ahead with a plan to rebuild its infrastructure while transitioning to a funding mechanism that taxes all road users equitably.