By Stephen Stetson
Want to understand why Alabama has a broken transportation system? Here’s an easy experiment: Go to the grocery store and buy a gallon of milk. Take it home and set it on the table. Now, just look at it. Keep watching. No matter how long you stare, the container won’t get any bigger. The contents may spoil, but the size of that gallon jug will always remain the same.
This simple science project gets to the root of the crisis in Alabama’s transportation funding. The buying power of a dollar goes down over time because of inflation, but the gallon is the same size it was in our grandparents’ day.
This is a tremendous problem for transportation funding in Alabama, whether you’re talking about buses, high-speed trains or old-fashioned roads and bridges. Gasoline is taxed by the gallon in Alabama. Because the state gas tax is not adjusted for inflation, the 16 cents per gallon you pay at the pump today is identical to the 16 cents per gallon you paid back in the early 1990s, the last time the state gas tax was increased.
Not only does the dollar buy less, but people also are filling up less often because vehicles get better gas mileage these days. Making fewer trips to the gas station is good for your pocketbook (and the environment), but it’s bad for the federal Highway Trust Fund and the state Public Road and Bridge Fund. These funds, supported by gas tax revenue, are a key part of how we pay for the roads and bridges that allow us to get to work, the doctor’s office, the football game and everywhere else we need to go.
What does Alabama’s shrinking gas tax revenue mean to you? It means the folks tasked with filling our potholes and inspecting and maintaining our bridges are doing so with less money, even as labor and material costs go up. At best, it means slower roadwork and more traffic congestion. At worst, it could mean another catastrophe like the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007.
The highway funding problem also has major implications for efforts to convince state leaders to invest in the public transportation systems that Alabama needs. If the state can’t muster the will to pay to maintain the roads and bridges we already have, we’re likely going to come up empty trying to fund more bus or van routes, covered shelters and benches for bus stops, or a fast train to take you from Birmingham to Mobile.
The gas tax crisis has been mounting for more than a decade. Unfortunately, because raising taxes is often unpopular, nothing much has been done to solve the problem. Transportation funding bills simply have added layers of patchwork solutions without addressing the fundamental causes of the crisis: decreasing gas consumption and increasing costs.
These issues are examined in depth in Connecting Our Citizens for Prosperity, a recent report co-authored by Arise Citizens’ Policy Project and published by Alabama State University’s Center for Leadership and Public Policy. The report, available at arisecitizens.org, surveys the increasingly dire reports from transportation planners and examines their proposed solutions.
Most planners agree that a necessary first step is to increase the gas tax for the first time in a generation. Should that prove to be politically impossible, some experts warn of a future where drivers are charged directly for using public roads, whether in the form of ubiquitous toll roads or a fee for vehicle miles traveled. If you think gas taxes are unpopular, consider those alternatives.
Alabama’s transportation funding problem won’t solve itself. Building roads with borrowed money may seem appealing, but it only delays the inevitable. Vehicles will continue to get better gas mileage, construction costs will continue to go up, and our state’s public transportation needs will remain unaddressed until our leaders act. We need to find the courage to deal with this problem now, not later.
Alabama has 21st-century transportation needs. It’s time for our leaders to bring the gas tax into the 21st century to meet them. That gallon milk jug isn’t getting any bigger.
Stephen Stetson is a policy analyst for Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of 155 congregations and organizations promoting public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. Email: [email protected]