Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure | It’s time American’s started paying for the transportation system as a utility - Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure
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NEWS

It’s time American’s started paying for the transportation system as a utility

03 Aug 2017, Posted in Blog Posts, Blog Posts

By Samuel G. Bonasso, PE*

The sheer size of the U.S. requires a sophisticated interstate highway system to facilitate commerce, tourism, and more, essentially making the surface transportation system our most important public utility. While most people associate the term “utility” with their electricity, water, or gas services, Webster’s New World Dictionary defines it as “Something useful to or designed for use by the public.” Once you accept the premise that the surface transportation system is a utility, you begin to realize it may be the most essential utility of all since it supports the supply of all the basic necessities required by the human population including; food, shelter, clothing, water, sewer, electricity, education, recreation, health care, law and order, entertainment, etc. When the system is not functioning properly these essential needs are delayed and sometimes not available at all. This means that the transportation system functions as a meta-utility or a vital support to all other services.

So why don’t we fund it as a utility? Mainly because the policy makers don’t want to consider it a utility.

According to The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the state of nation’s transportation system barely gets a barely passing grade and the backlog of needed improvements is great. Further, most drivers don’t need ASCE to tell them how bad their highways are – the daily commute in most areas or the ever-present potholes and road closures tell their own story, making it increasingly clear that the nation’s transportation system is indeed a vital utility that is losing its utility. Despite all of this, the federal transportation budget hasn’t grown much in the past 20 years.

At the heart of this matter are two factors:

  1.  Increased demand for transportation facilities due to population growth, increased economic activity – particularly in the heavy industries, and international trade and the trucking needed to support it; and
  2. Continued under investment and a lack of commitment to long-term solutions by policy makers at all levels of government.

According to a report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, about 75 to 80 percent of Americans would prefer to have safe, efficient and well-maintained transportation infrastructure over tv cable, cell phone, internet, water, sewage and household electricity and natural gas services. The poll that led to these was conducted to determine how Americans think about and value the national road and transit network. The poll’s other findings include:

• 78 percent said driving a motor vehicle is important in their daily lives
• 21 percent considered public transportation to be an important part of their daily lives
• 88 percent found transportation infrastructure to be important to maintaining a strong economy
• 83 percent attribute transportation as important to ensure national defense and emergency response capabilities
• 74 percent said “investing in transportation infrastructure should be a core function of the federal government”

Interestingly, 40 percent of the survey’s respondents didn’t know how much they pay in gas taxes. According to data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the average U.S. household paid $46 per month in gas taxes in 2011.
But, 24 percent of respondents estimated they pay more than double what FHWA reported. In fact, the amount of gas tax respondent’s estimate they pay would require buying about 5,400 miles per month worth of gas, while FHWA data show the average household drives about 2,100 miles each month.
And though respondents say they’d rather have improved roads over certain utilities or other services, the average household spends about 3.5 times more each month for household electricity and natural gas service than for state and federal gas taxes, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Commerce Department. Additionally, most Americans pay 3.5 times more each month for phone services and 2.5 times more for television services, radio and internet access.
Transportation, particularly highways, has become a fundamental necessity to the economic well-being of modern society and should be under the guidance of a special public transportation utility body capable of guiding its funding, operation and upkeep. With oversight from a government utility board, this body should be empowered to generate new sources of revenue associated with the operation of highway system, as needed. Such a transportation utility board should be established with all the usual powers of a public government authority i.e. bonding power, eminent domain, etc. Because it is a utility, transportation should be treated like sewage, water, electricity, waste disposal, natural gas, telephone, etc. The users of the system should be paying for the use of the system at an appropriate rate that reflects the cost of constructing, operating and replacing it. With the electrification and computerization of the modern automobile, it would be easy report miles travelled based on a VIN number while maintaining individual privacy and let every user pay their fair share.

A user fee approach, like those used in municipal water and sewer systems, i.e. users are charged based on how much they uses the system, makes sense for transportation infrastructure too. Vehicles that cause more traffic by the nature of their use are responsible for a greater portion of the wear and tear on transportation infrastructure, and might reasonably be expected to make larger contributions toward maintenance expenses. Regretfully, the establishment of a transportation utility fee is not motivated by a revenue shortfall or a backlog of road maintenance projects.
We don’t have a tax problem, we have a spending problem. People have lost trust in their government representatives to actually spend their money on the roads wisely. People rarely feel that way about sewer and water and electricity. The user fee principle says that the user is always willing to pay for the use of the specific benefit.

Instead of opposing increases in the gas tax, or offering useless, less objectionable tax measures as the cure to woeful transportation investment and funding, we should establish a utility fee, a vehicle miles travel fee based actual vehicle mileage travelled, or other similar funding mechanisms that provides accountability and a direct link between the service requested and the benefit provided. For example, with information technology, similar to EZ PASS, every mile travelled could be established and paid for. This would be relatively simple to do on the interstate system.
Such a system for paying would reflect the true value of the transportation utility. If we don’t start paying the true cost of using it, it will continue to deteriorate.

*Samuel G. Bonasso, PE, F. ASCE, career civil engineering consultant, structural engineer, inventor, and Adjunct Civil Engineering Professor at West Virginia University. Served publicly as WV Secretary of Transportation and Deputy Administrator, Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) / Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), USDOT, Washington, DC. Currently President, Reinforced Aggregates Company.