Yup, it’s that time of year, when the spring melt, road construction season, and income taxes conspire to unleash a perfect storm on our finances. And of those income taxes due tomorrow… Very little will go to even patching our national collection of potholes we call “infrastructure”.
Building roads, railroads, waterways, and even lowly pedestrian and bike trails can get damn expensive- even a simple repaving of a rural 2 lane can push a million $$$ a mile, a new urban light rail line or rebuilding an urban freeway can run $100,000,000 a mile. And a new urban freeway? Nobody even dares propose one anymore! And building and major rebuilding is the better funded part of our transportation infrastructure- 80% federal funded for major highways and 50% for transit.
But the dark side of transportation funding is maintenance, and the fed’s funding disappears with the orange barrels when the shiny new road or rails are finished. Then it gets progressively ugly, as underfunded state and local governments have to absorb the increasing costs of potholes, cracks, storm damage, and just plain wear. To give you an example, my home state of Minnesota just announced this year’s projects, and even with over a billion dollars in spending we’re getting little new lane-miles… Almost all the funding is going to repaving cratered roads and fixing bridges before they collapse. For example, a 25 mile long segment of US 14 near me that looks to have been built in the 1940s will get repaved, one bridge repaired, and built up with fill on a drained lake bottom where it keeps flooding. No paved shoulders, no bike/pedestrian trail, no safety improvements like turn lanes and more gently graded embankments, and no money to permanently move the road out of the wetland where it never belonged to begin with.
And those income tax dollars you’re paying? On the federal side, almost none will go to transportation. In some states, a little seeps into transportation funding via programs like Local Government Aid, whereby the state shares some of it’s revenue to small towns like mine and we invest some of it back into our city streets. That’ll fund patching a few potholes, but no way could we afford even repaving without a property tax assessment! And some of the wealthier cities don’t get that funding at all, despite the fact that just the cities of Minneapolis and St.Paul have as many lane-miles of streets to maintain as Minnesota has Interstate lane-miles. In fact, the vast majority of roads receive no federal or state funding whatsoever.
About now a tea party denizen in the back row is loudly reminding us that he “pays taxes”… So let’s take a look at those taxes we pay that are pretty much dedicated to transportation infrastructure. Heck, even motorcyclists pay taxes, and here in Minnesota the bit over 6% sales tax you pay on a new $15,000 motorcycle will result in a $1000 or so donation to the state’ transportation trust fund. You’ll be dropping another $50 or so every year to renew your registration, over 20 year expected life of that motorcycle that’s another $1000 or so. YMMV, but the average motorcycle gets 40 MPG and gets ridden 2000 miles a year, consuming 50 gallons of gas. YMMV on this too, but the average state and federal gas tax is about 50 cents a gallon, so our motorcyclist is contributing another $500 for a total of $2500 over twenty years to ride 40,000 miles, about 6 cents a mile. Now I’ve searched high and low for the cost of the wear and tear a vehicle does to the roads, and the best number I can find is around a nickel per mile per ton of weight. At not even a half ton of weight soaking wet, our motorcyclist is paying for three times the costs he imposes on our transportation infrastructure!
But sometimes it snows in Minnesota, so some of us need cars. So we buy a $30,000 car and drop $2000 of sales tax into the transportation trust fund, spend another $2000 licensing it for it’s 20 year life, and the average car gets around 20 MPG real world so after 20 years we’ve driven 200,000 miles and bought 10,000 gallons of gas making a further contribution of $5000, for a grand tax total of around $9000. But our average car weights 2 tons and wears the roads to the tune of a dime a mile, causing $20,000 in cost over it’s lifetime and paying not even half it’s road costs.
It goes downhill fast from here… That teabagger in the back looks like he’s gonna stroke out or have a coronary, so better give him some attention. He of course drives a big ol’ $40,000 new pickup that gets 10 MPG, cruising 30,000 miles a year between his exurban minimansion, the social security office, hospital, bank , and his fishin’ hole. it’s been mighty patriotic of him to contribute $2500 every 10 years in sales taxes because he’s wearin’ the damn things out so quick, and the $1500 a year he’s contributing in gas taxes helps mightily too, as well as the $3000 or so he’s paying to register it ’til it rolls into the junkyard. That all adds up to a bit over $20,000 or 7 cents or so a mile. Problem is, he’s overloaded his big ol’ pickup to 4 tons at least, so it’s wearin’ and tearin’ up the roads to the tune of 20 cents a mile. Teabagger’s not takin’ this well, just a minute while we find the AED and call 911…
So much for the toy trucks, how’s ’bout the real big rigs? So let’s say one of my neighboring family farms has had a good year, so they invest $200,000 in a new tractor-trailer rig. That produces a 12% $24,000 federal excise tax contribution to the Fed’s Highway trust fund, and another $13,000 or so sales tax contribution to the state’s. On top of that they’re paying over $2000 a year in Federal Highway Use Tax and state registration, even with the discount the state gives them for farm use. And at 6 MPG, they’d be a big contributor via the fuel taxes, ‘cept they have 100 or so tillable acres in their section and the elevator’s only 10 miles away. So over the new rig’s life, it’ll contribute $37,000 in taxes before it rolls off the lot, and another $40,000 in registration fees over 20 years. But even with 200 bushel an acre corn, that thousand bushel trailer will only make 20 round trips to the elevator a year, and even with the odd trips to pickup inputs and shuttle tractors on the lowboy, they’ll be lucky to cover 6000 miles a year, burn 1000 gallons of diesel, and pay $600 in fuel taxes. Over 20 years their pride and joy of a rig will cover 120,000 miles and contribute around $90,000 to the maintenance of the main roads. And running empty on the way back from the elevator, it’ll weigh on average 30 tons and wear the roads to the tune of $1.50 a mile, or $180,000 over it’s lifetime, and contribute barely half that.
But compared to the trucking company that serves the packinghouse up the street from the elevator, our family farmers are model citizens. The big trucking company has hundreds of trucks, and they get big discounts and buys them in another state with no sales tax, so they contribute maybe $18,000 when they get a deeply discounted new truck for $150,000. They pay about the same $2000 annual registration as our family farmers, but they put two drivers in the rig and it never rests, covering 200,000 miles a year. In five years it’s pretty much worn out, having contributed $28,000 to the highway trust funds and $100,000 in fuel taxes, paying a mere 13 cents a mile for the wear and tear it’s caused. But it’s always loaded to the 40 ton legal limit as well as moving, causing $2 per mile in wear and tear in the roads. Over 5 years this always loaded and rollin’ tax scofflaw has cost us all the better part of a million dollars in subsidy to cover the huge gap between it’s measly tax payments and the wear and tear it wreaks upon the roads.
Meanwhile, the railroads are pretty much payin’ for their own tracks and way, and if the airlines manage to avoid bankruptcy for a while they’ll do likewise. The barges on our big rivers pretty much get a free ride, but the costs aren’t that huge and the Corps does some useful stuff like flood control and conservation with their sliver of the federal budget too. But big trucks runnin’ day and night… They’re living off the taxpayers, and making them pay their fair share would shift vast amounts of freight to greener modes like rail, saving precious fuel and reducing global warming.
And those walkers, bicyclists, and motorcyclists? Look out for them, they’re payin’ more than their share!