Running on empty

Our view : As motorists cut back, a transportation crisis worsens

July 30, 2008

People are driving less, a lot less. That's hardly shocking given high gasoline prices and the downturn in the economy, and not entirely bad. Lowered consumption and greater fuel efficiency can only help the environment and loosen, if perhaps only slightly, the nation's dependence on foreign oil. But the trend is also disastrous for the financing of the nation's transportation infrastructure.

At a time when the U.S. should be investing more in its deteriorating roads and bridges, the gasoline-tax-financed highway trust fund is oversubscribed and teetering on bankruptcy. In Maryland, the state transportation trust fund's projected revenues may be off by as much as 5 percent to 10 percent. Officials are still calculating exactly what this might mean over the next six years, but it's safe to assume that significant highway and transit spending cuts will have to be made.

A number of factors have made the situation worse, including a record drop in car sales (vehicle titling taxes are second only to the gas tax as the largest source of revenue to the trust fund) and a doubling in the cost of asphalt over the past year.

But if the situation in Maryland is alarming, the federal government's predicament is disastrous. The federal trust fund was in trouble before the energy crisis. The $8 billion general fund infusion approved last week by the House represents, at best, a temporary Band-Aid.

This Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the Interstate 35-W bridge in Minneapolis. That terrible event underscored the severity of the nation's infrastructure needs - by the federal government's own reporting, more than one-quarter of bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete. But Congress and the White House have failed to take the needed actions to prevent more such tragedies.

Had government, federal and local, had the foresight to raise gas taxes years ago, when motorists needed to be weaned from their guzzlers, the country's transportation system - and our oil-addicted economy - might be in far better shape today. What's needed now is a new and reliable source of revenue and a commitment to address the $495 billion backlog of deferred road and bridge maintenance and repairs and to improve and expand public transit, including trains, subways, light rail and clean buses.

Such an enhanced public works agenda would no doubt provide a needed boost for the economy in the near term. But more important, it would move America toward a transportation system that is cleaner, faster and cheaper than the aging and crowded one that exists now.

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