Realistically, you probably didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to vote for crumbling roads.” But what most people in the U.S. HAVE done is vote down, or encourage their representatives to vote down, increases in the gas tax. Here’s why it matters.
THE LINK BETWEEN ROADS AND TAXES
What does the gas tax have to do with roads, you ask? It pays for them, or at least it does in theory. Once long ago, the gas tax did most of the legwork paying for roads to be built and maintained. And it made sense—funding for roads was paid in a fairly direct way by the people who used them most.
THE FUNDING GAP
But while inflation and road use have risen, repeated votes have struck down necessary rises in the gas tax (which was oddly set at specific dollar amounts instead of percentages or indexes that would account for inflation). That means that even as we built more roads, facilitated more drivers, and more infrastructure wore out, the relative amount of funding coming from gas taxes shrunk. Increased fuel efficiency has widened the gap between gas tax paid and road usage level even further.
MAKING UP THE DIFFERENCE
Gas tax now only accounts for about 50 percent of the money we spend on roads. So where do governments make up the difference? From their general operating budgets—the same budgets they use to fund things like schools, fire departments and police.
Do you want a new school or do you want to keep a bridge from collapsing? Do you want to close your neighborhood firehouse or keep driving on roads that pop dozens of tires a week? We don’t see it, but our state and local governments have to make choices like these all the time, all because the majority of Americans have such a visceral and emotional reaction to anything involving the word “tax” that we refuse to properly fund the crumbling roads we’re always grousing about.
If you want better roads, you’re going to have to pay for them. And since the government is responsible for the majority of road construction and maintenance, that means you’re going to have to approve more road-related taxes. Period.