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.