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The sorry state of nation’s roads: funding shortfall isn’t helping any

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The nation's highway system continues its downward spiral of deterioration, while money for repairs and new construction declines. Like everything else associated with government, the system has been operating at a huge deficit.

If you even occasionally drive on the highway system, you’re aware of the execrable condition of the nation’s roadways: potholes everywhere, patches galore, uneven/buckled pavement — it’s a heckuva note when you have to spend as much time on the lookout for highway hazards as for traffic.

The highway system continues its downward spiral of deterioration, while money for repairs and new construction declines.

By far the largest chunk of money spent on the nation’s transportation system comes from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel.

But like everything else associated with government, the system has been operating at a huge deficit. In fiscal 2011, transportation spending was pegged at about $80 billion, while income from transportation excise taxes generated less than half that, about $37.5 billion. The difference was made up from increases to the national debt.

Ten cents per gallon generates about $20 billion in taxes, according to the Government Accountability Office, so it would take an additional 20 cents just to make up the annual deficit.

The federal gasoline tax was last increased in 1993 and, given inflation, the 18.4 cents per gallon is now worth only about 11 cents. Since that time, vehicle miles traveled have risen almost 30 percent and construction/maintenance costs have skyrocketed.

The critics who carp about the tax almost never mention that virtually every state gets back more federal transportation dollars than it pays in gasoline taxes (Mississippi, $1.22; Louisiana, $1.27; Arkansas, $1.31; Tennessee, $1.12, Missouri, $1.21).  Some get double or more, from Alaska’s $4.99 to tiny Rhode Island’s $2.96 to the District of Columbia’s $5.85.

It is, of course, in the final analysis, all taxpayer money. It’s just that the Highway Trust Fund is not self-sustainable from transportation excise taxes alone. And it’s estimated that deferred maintenance on roads and bridge, plus associated loss of productivity, amounts to $100 billion or more each year.

In March, a battle royal looms over transportation funding, and the losers will be everyone who uses the highways.

The Republican majority in Congress is girding to halt the transfer of funds from other accounts to make up the trust fund deficit. And in an election year, Congress’ approval of an increase in the per gallon federal tax has about as much chance as the proverbial snowball in you-know-where. At least one presidential candidate favors limiting funding to just the amount generated by user taxes.

Even were the honorables to pass an increase, a public, already outraged by high gasoline prices, would demand that heads roll. (Only two countries in the entire world have lower gasoline taxes than the U.S.)

So, it looks like a highway system already in abysmal shape will only get worse as funding continues to fall far short of needs.

Happy new year!

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