When a Gas Tax Pays for Itself

Washington Matters

When a Gas Tax Pays for Itself

Many of us who live in the Washington area were startled this month when road experts put a price tag on our pothole problem. We knew the roads were bad but few of us had bothered toting up the repair bills. Now a new study has done that for us -- estimating that in my area, the cost is $458 a year. And it's just as bad or worse in other big urban areas. One possible solution, albeit a distinctly unpopular one, is a boost in gasoline taxes.

The study was conducted by the Road Information Program and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and aptly titled, "Rough Roads Ahead: Fix Them Now or Pay Later." It found that the combination of neglect and heavy usage leads to a steady deterioration, costing more in tire damage, alignments, shocks and springs and faster than normal wear and tear. The groups also found that the number of miles driven jumped 41% between 1990 and 2007, with two thirds of that in the urban areas. The amount spent on road maintenance, meanwhile, ran about 1/6 of what's needed.

In the Washington area, 31% of the roads  were in poor shape, up from 25% four years earlier, and we're actually doing relatively well, ranking 25th on the list of worst metropolitan areas. The price tag for motorists in Los Angeles, for example, was $746 a year, with several other California metropolitan areas also high on the list. In Tulsa, the cost is $703 a year; New York, $638, Boise, $597; Detroit, $525; San Antonio, $529; Des Moines, $524 and Shreveport, $522.

The stimulus program will help, with $27 billion nationwide for better roads, but that's still a drop in the bucket. In our area, some highway advocates are arguing for a 10 cent a gallon boost in gasoline taxes, with the money used exclusively for road repairs. That would cost an average of about $60 a year for motorists, far less than they're paying in repairs. The Washington Post editorial page came out in favor of the idea yesterday, but lawmakers insist that a recession is not the time to raise taxes. That may be true, but a recession isn't a good time to pay for car repairs, either, to say nothing of the safety hazards involved in a lot of people driving around on bad tires.And none of this takes into account the effect that higher gas taxes has on driving habits: People find ways to drive less, something desperately needed as we try to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and our overall dependence on oil.


The study also points out that the longer we dawdle, the worse it will be. It costs six times as much to replace a road as to maintain it. So the money not spent today will get spent many times over down the road (in both senses of the word). So what are we waiting for?