Trucks at Work

Debating the direction of transportation policy

So last week AAA (the former American Automobile Association) released the results of a survey incorporating the responses of 1,008 U.S. adults (503 men and 508 women, of which 817 were identified as “current motorists”) regarding what transportation policy initiatives the federal government should focus upon when it comes to motor vehicles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, AAA said 62% of those polled believe the federal government should invest more money to improve roadways, with 81% saying the federal government should do more to improve the condition of roads and bridges and nearly seven out of ten (68%) believing the federal government should make "reducing congestion on the roads" a top transportation priority.

How to generate the money to do all that, though, isn’t clear, with AAA’s survey sample providing a decidedly mixed response to a range of funding methods. Take a look for yourself:

  • Replacing the per-gallon gas tax with a national gasoline sales tax (55%)
  • Creating a new national sales tax dedicated to transportation (47%)
  • Expanding the use of tolls to Interstate highways where tolls are not currently collected (47%)
  • Creating a carbon tax on fossil fuels (45%)
  • Replacing the federal gas tax with a per-miles-driven fee (37%)
  • Creating an energy tax on all sources of energy (35%)
  • Increasing the federal per-gallon gas tax (27%)

Based on the above responses, only clear funding choice supported by a majority of those polled rests in a reconfiguration of our current fuel tax. By contrast, increasing per-gallon fuel taxes didn’t even get support from a third of those surveyed, while none of other funding options broke the 50% mark.

Robert Darbelnet, AAA’s president and CEO, also made an interesting comment as part of the report on this survey: "Policymakers and transportation advocates are failing to connect with the public on the practical concerns that matter most to motorists. Motorists want to hear about how their elected officials can improve their daily commute by repairing the pothole down the street or the bumpy road around the corner."

That’s the crux of matter, I think, for both motorists and truckers: how to reduce congestion and keep the roads in good shape. Yet the bigger issue remains: where does the money to do those two things? Based on this poll, no one wants to increase taxes, create new taxes or tolls, or shift to a “fee-based” structure.

Yet here’s another question that needs to be asked in this debate: can the nation address congestion plus infrastructure and expansion needs WITHOUT more money?

That may be possible and indeed may already be occurring to a degree according to a Reason Foundation report issued back in February.

The group examined 20 years of state highway data and found that the condition of America's state-controlled roads, at least, improved in seven key areas over that time – especially in regards to deficient bridges and pavement condition.

The Reason Foundation study tracks spending per mile on state-owned roads and measures road performance in seven categories: miles of urban Interstate highways in poor pavement condition, miles of rural Interstates in poor condition, congestion on urban Interstates, deficient bridges, highway fatalities, rural primary roads in poor condition and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow.

According to the group’s research, nationwide, the number of deficient bridges in the country fell from 37.8% of all bridges in 1989 to 23.7% in 2008.

Furthermore, in the 20 years examined, 11 states (North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Nebraska, Maine, Montana, Tennessee, Kansas, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Florida) made progress in all seven categories and 37 states improved in at least five of the seven metrics listed above.

California was the only state that failed to improve in at least three areas, making strides only in deficient bridges and fatalities. Finally, five states – New York, Hawaii, Utah, Vermont and Mississippi – progressed in just three categories.

[FYI: The Reason Foundation’s report compiles data from a variety of sources, primarily from information the states themselves reported to the federal government from 1989 through 2008. The full report is hereand state-by-state summaries are here. Complete data for the year 2009 will soon be available.]

The group added that the percentage of urban Interstates with poor pavement condition dropped slightly from 6.6% in 1989 to 5.4% in 2008. Two states, Nevada and Missouri made what the group dubbed "remarkable turnarounds" as in 1989, nearly half of their urban Interstates were in poor condition, but by 2008 less than 2% were in poor condition.

On top of that, the percentage of rural Interstates rated in poor condition was reduced by over two-thirds, from 6.6% in 1989 to 1.93% in 2008. However, almost all of the improvements came before 1999 and two states reported rural conditions worsening by more than five percentage points: New York and California.

The Reason Foundation also added a twist to the roadway debate as well, noting that amount of state-controlled road mileage increased by just 0.6% from 1989 to 2008 while spending per mile on state-administered roads grew by 60%, adjusted for inflation, during that 20 year span.

"There are still plenty of problems to fix, but our roads and bridges aren't crumbling," noted David Hartgen, lead author of this report and emeritus professor of transportation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "The overall condition of the state-controlled road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape. The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good."

Something to ruminate upon as the nation debates how to generate transportation funding and what to spend it upon.

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