First, Fix Virginia’s Roads

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s infrastructure rates a “D+” in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 report card on American infrastructure, released earlier this week. That’s a lousy rating in line with the national score of D+. The civil engineers have been accused of overstating the woes of American infrastructure in order to justify spending more money on projects that ultimately benefit… civil engineers. Be that as it may, there is some interesting data in the Virginia state report.

Here are two data points that caught my eye:

  • 9.1% — the percentage of bridges deemed structurally deficient.
  • 47% — the percentage of roads rated poor or mediocre quality

And a third: The average yearly cost to motorists in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs from driving on roads in need of repair is $254.

Bacon’s bottom line: The top priority of transportation policy should be to fully fund the maintenance of existing road, bridges, highways and rail before a single dime is spent upon new infrastructure. There is no excuse for allowing roads to deteriorate. First, poor roads impose a needless cost on drivers. Second, the more roads deteriorate, the more expensive they are to bring up to proper standards later. Letting transportation infrastructure to degrade creates a double whammy for citizens.

Official Virginia policy, embedded in the state code, requires the Virginia Department of Transportation to fully fund maintenance before undertaking new construction. And VDOT has abided by that policy… more or less. But there is a gray area. What standards of road and bridge conditions do we adhere to? Clearly, the current practice falls short of perfection — or 9.1% of our bridges would not be graded deficient nor would 47% of our roads be deemed poor or mediocre quality. If the civil engineers are to be believed, that slippage is costing Virginia drivers a fair amount of money for new tires and shock absorbers.

Now, compare that $254-per-year cost to what the typical driver has been paying in state gasoline taxes (17.5 cents per gallon). Assume the typical motorist drives 15,000 miles per year and gets 25 miles per gallon. He would buy 600 gallons of gasoline yearly and pay $105 yearly in state gasoline taxes.

Wow! The sub-par quality of roads and highways is costing motorists two-and-a-half times as much as what they pay in the gas tax! Talk about pennies wise and pounds foolish.

That brings me back to an old proposal: The gas tax should be set at whatever rate it takes to fully fund the maintenance of Virginia roads, bridges and highways at a high level of quality — no more, no less. Those tax revenues should be dedicated to maintenance and go to no other purpose. I believe that Virginians would be willing to pay a few pennies more per gallon in gas taxes if they were assured that the money was not being diverted to new construction of questionable value.

Such a tax would be easier to swallow if motorists could see the payoff in the form of smoother, safer rides resulting in fewer auto repairs. People are smart enough to know that if you pay to properly maintain the roads, they won’t pay as much to maintain their cars.

The problem with the old transportation funding policy, as well as the new one passed by the General Assembly last month, is that no one can see the connection between what they pay and what they get in return. Linking the gasoline tax to maintenance would make that link crystal clear for at least a portion of the road budget.

5 Responses to First, Fix Virginia’s Roads

  1. Jim:

    For whatever reason, that report cites the 2009 grades for Virginia. It cites the 2012 grades for Florida. It has no overall grade for Utah.

    I looked at it a couple days ago and I can’t tell what it’s trying to say.

  2. I put in a call to ASCE to see if the data was 2009 or 2013. The graphic designer might have made a mistake.

  3. Road and bridge damage is chiefly caused by heavy trucks. Several years ago, BR had a posting about this issue. Overweight trucks alone caused well over $200 M in annual damage, but paid permit fees of less than $3 M. Last year, the legislature doubled the permit fees. What does that tell you?

    Why are we still subsidizing overweight trucks? How much damage to other heavy trucks cause annually and are they paying sufficient taxes to cover those costs?

  4. 33 state Motor Fuel excise Taxes 17.5¢ rank 37
    34 Per Capita road expenditures $430 rank 38

    Virginia Compared to the other StateS

    http://jlarc.state.va.us/reports/Rpt419.pdf

  5. the problem with trucks

    there is virtually NOTHING in your home including your home – and your car that was not delivered by truck.

    In Europe – road beds are twice as thick as ours because they actually heed the reality that trucks will use the roads.

    Here – we do roads on the cheap – because – it would “take away from construction” if we actually paved them to sustain the inevitable truck traffic that every one of us – “uses”.

    so the premise is – not should the trucks pay – trucks don’t pay – they merely tack on to their delivery fees whatever they incur in taxes, fees and penalties themselves.

    the proper framing of the question is HOW do YOU want to pay?

    do you want to pay more for thicker paving standards or do you want to pay more for maintenance?

    pick your poison.

Leave a Reply