Every so often, when it critically needs a rational, logical, and scientifically rigorous report on which to base its actions, the federal government calls on the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Recently that entity’s Transportation Research Board released their study “Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System,” its 650-page behemoth on the state of our national highways. It’s something everyone already knows: You can’t go 25 years without raising the fuel tax for roads and expect them to magically appear and alleviate congestion.
One would like to think it didn’t take the greatest minds in America to achieve that conclusion. After all, our Metroplex has highway after highway under never-ending construction; and it often seems it has taken longer to do this than it took to build the original Interstate Highway System. But things go slowly when there’s little or no money in the bank.
The real tragedy for motorists is that even after the new roads are completed, they do nothing whatsoever to reduce congestion. As I’ve pointed out before, when you take a straight-line freeway and rebuild it with no more lanes than it had before — except that it’s no longer straight because it now accommodates a HOT lane(s), where one can pay to get out of being stuck in traffic — congestion can start forming on a freeway where it’s never been before, even outside of rush hour.
Cutting to the chase, currently we spend around $25 billion a year on our Interstate Highway System; and, while most families fly to vacation spots or to visit relatives today instead of driving, the Interstates are crucial to our moving around our Metroplex and transporting goods nationwide. But only about 10 percent of that money is used on new roads; most is for maintenance on the Interstates. The report does worry that at some point the foundations of Interstate roads, much of it over half a century old, will become too damaged to repair and need to be replaced.
The takeaway is that Americans need to pitch in $70 billion more annually to get back the quality of Interstates that we once had. And the Academies doesn’t seem to care if this revenue comes from tolling the entire Interstate Highway System or from higher gasoline taxes. At times it seems the report favors HOT lanes and toll roads — yet it simultaneously explains why the gasoline tax is the far smarter way to collect funds for highways.
Keep It Simple
It’s simple enough. If one needs to spend $70 billion more per year for the Interstates, first you must determine how much gasoline the public is buying every year. Total 2017 U.S. gasoline purchases, according to the Department of Energy, comprised 142.9 billion gallons. How easy is that to calculate if one rounds down? 142 billion gallons of gas divided by $70 billion is around 50 cents per gallon. Of course, that’s just gasoline purchases; it would actually be less because many vehicles use diesel. (32 billion gallons of diesel sold per year.)
But let’s end forever the fallacy that officials still to explain why raising the gasoline taxes will never work — because we buy less gasoline than we used to because of more fuel efficient vehicles. In fact, fact-averse officials have used that “less gas purchased” excuse to explain why there’s no money in the highway funds to begin with. Now, it is true that gasoline demand in America fell as gas climbed to $4 a gallon, followed by the mini-Great Depression II, but that hasn’t been the case for some time. In 2015 we bought 385 million gallons of gasoline each day, and it’s now 392 million gallons daily. The distillate fuels, such as diesel, have similarly climbed in use as the nation’s recovery over the past eight years has put more truckers on the roads delivering goods.
The Road to Serfdom
As the December 12 Newspaper.com pointed out, this report liked the idea of HOT lanes, including Interstate 66’s high-occupancy tolls in Virginia, although that 10-mile stretch of highway hadn’t even opened when that report was being written. Turns out that the tolls on those HOT Lanes can hit upwards of $45 in the morning and a similar amount returning home after a hard day’s work in DC. Few white-collar Americans have the wherewithal to pay an extra $450 a week to travel to work.
But here is where the report tips its conclusion about why things aren’t going to get any better: That study points out that these so-called managed lanes are sold to the public as a way to reduce traffic congestion — but if congestion really drops after they are completed, then there’s no reason whatsoever for those motorists who can afford to use the high-priced HOT lanes to do so.
Of course, that’s something we all know from our travels around the Metroplex; those varying tolls climb as the free highways grind to a stop. But that’s the point. Here the Newspaper.com pulled the perfect quote out of that study: “Congestion must remain on the general purpose lanes to continue to entice drivers to pay for the premium service.” Translated: The road to serfdom is on the right.
The report contradicts itself, though, about the financial logic of such roads. It clearly points out why having a gasoline tax is more efficient than having a toll road: Because the cost of administration to collect, transfer, and use a tax from fuel sales is less than 1 percent, while the administrative costs of tolling, even the high-tech electronic toll tags, consume anywhere from 8 to 13 percent of their total revenues.
Given that high cost of doing things the hard way, meanwhile guaranteeing that the working public continues to be mired in highway congestion for the rest of their lives, why do our elected officials keep pushing the ultra-expensive alternative to simply fixing and expanding the roads?
We Have a Choice
Again, not to put too sharp a point on this, but our parents and grandparents paid for the entire Interstate Highway System, most of our electric grid, approved all of the 17 lakes and reservoirs North Texas uses, and built DFW and other major national airports; and they did all this raising almost twice as many kids on average as modern generations do. Further, they did so in a time when there were only 2.3 million people living in Dallas Fort Worth. Now, with over 7 million inhabitants and a much larger upper-middle class having fewer kids, we’re told we’re flat broke and can’t do big things anymore. Scratch that, can’t do anything that requires pitching in financially anymore. We used to elect statesmen who would tell us that one day we were going to go to the moon; now officials are explaining why driving to Kennedale at 8 in the morning will be near impossible.
Of course, as with all reports from the National Academies of Science, there’s nothing in it that anyone who must use our roads every day doesn’t already know. There’s no magical answer for moving Americans and our goods around the country, even for something as mundane as going to work in the morning. It all reminds me of citizens 100 years ago, living near the steel mills around Pittsburgh; sick and dying young from breathing in all the smoke and embers of large-scale coal- and coke-fired industry, they would justify their existence with, “This is the price of prosperity.” After all, if all the steel jobs went away, the skies would have cleared; but that wasn’t a viable answer at the time if you wanted to pay rent and buy food.
Technology and government regulations took care of the smog, smoke, and embers of that more primitive time, made our cars among the cleanest things that use fossil fuels. But that was replaced by sitting in traffic and telling ourselves it’s the price of prosperity in a booming place like North Texas.
Next time you’re wondering why traffic has slowed to a stop on a major interstate even though there’s no wreck ahead, contemplate what the National Academies of Science has reported. For less than 50 cents per gallon, all these troubles could go away. If one is well to do enough, use the HOT lanes because they only work financially if everyone else is stuck in traffic.
When Megan Henderson left Fox Four and moved home to California to work the morning show at KTLA, I reminded her on air that there would be many days when it’s faster to catch a flight at DFW to go home to visit her family than it would be to drive the last five miles of Highway 101 to get to work in LA. For the record, according to California’s transportation department, that’s a true statement on many days. But now you have the facts; sit in traffic or pay the big bucks to keep moving. Because the easy and obvious answer is the one nobody will agree to.
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org