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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.

Legacy Comments8

No that is Big Brother. DOT has a wasteful nanny state program called Safe Routes to School, let's end that program and roll those funds into maintenance of the roads. "mindless anti-tax mentality", right, let's tax everyone to death.....typical progressive statement.

I'm all for fair creative ways to generate the needed money for roads. But first, one needs to truly look at how the money is disbursed in the state and the Federal budget. The federal government needs to get out of building so many roads and bridges. It becomes a political pork barrel fund for politicians. Look at the Tappan Zee bridge outside NYC. Cost $80M to build from scratch, it was built across a 3 mile stretch of the river when there were better less costly places to build it. For political reason it was built there. They have just finished a $500M maintenance program on it and are now talking about building a new bridge for the price of $5 Billion. Yes I have used this bridge and I am willing to pay a toll to use it but in reality it is a commuter bridge for NYC so the rest of the country should not be paying the vast burden of the cost. The formula on roads should be reversed so the STATE pays 90% and the FEDS pay 10% (with a like reduction in Federal Tax each person owes). Let the citizens of each state decide how to spend the tax dollars that each state generates. If a state wants to build a bridge to nowhere - let them as they will pay for it.

Proposing what is an ankle bracelet for your car and an increase in taxes should be astonishing proposition to Real Americans. Unfortunately the liberal progressive populist socialist democrats have gone so far left they have escaped the earths moral & gravitational pull. Obama's NSA has been exposed as already spying on Americans and yesterday they would not deny to Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders that they are spying on Congress. 2) Our Govt does NOT have a taxing problem - It has a SPENDING problem and that too destroys your freedom. This shameful, alarmist, the sky is falling, editorial voids the special protections granted to the media by the founding fathers. This paper should be exposing the Govt destroying our freedom and liberty not proposing new measures to eliminate it...... Shame on any paper for proposing such actions instead of exposing them. 1/8/14 - Post 1of 12 -

Sail, this op-Ed is about roads, not Obama, not the NSA. Not the Monitor destroying our freedom. Sometimes I have to pinch myself as a reminder that you're not a paid satirist, like right now with this rant you've posted.

Don't you know it's always about Obama?

The money that goes to the State Police from the gas tax needs to be addressed. We need to properly fund the State Police and stop whining that the gas tax needs to be increased to fix the roads and bridges. After we move the mis-appropriated funds from the State Police to the highway fund, I would be happy to talk about increasing the gas tax. Why the Monitor continues to ignore this issue befuddles me. Yes, Lynch did and now so does Hassan.

I agree entirely. In the last decade or so suddenly every construction zone somehow needs 1 or more police officers stationed there all day long, most of them on overtime wages. Police unions across this nation have used strong arm tactics to ensure their presence in these zones, as I have been told by police officers themselves. It's not rumor. Across this State on a given day during non winter months, how much gas tax revenue is now spent on overtime cops sitting all day long with a cruiser running and blue lights flashing? As for rest of the piece, if someone drives a car that gets 35 mpg and drives 25K miles a year, are we going to tax that driver more than someone who drives a gas guzzling V8 that gets 12 mpg and "only" drives 12K a year? How is that fair? Lastly, our society is still using steel to construct bridges while we have the knowledge to build them using new man made materials that don't rust, or require the kind of care and replacing that steel does. Nobody can tell me we don't have the technology to fabricate I-beams made of ceramics or even plastics that are stronger than and more durable than steel. That won't rust. Doesn't seem like there is much R&D going on to find new and better ways to build our highways. Can a bridge be built that can last for a century? I think we already could do this if there were people pressuring for it.

Interesting points I agree with most of it. This is turning into a police state......strong arm, yes and honestly there are often police cars, overtime being earned and cars running every 1500 feet or so.

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