I work at the bottom of the transportation food chain. At this level, we have some very basic needs. Each year, we need to fix roads, and we need to find the money to do so. And for the first time in my career, Congress seems to be considering a transportation bill that might just address these needs. Now, I’ve read all the articles condemning the bill and prophesying impending doom. But I don’t believe any of these have been written by anyone actually managing transportation systems for an average community. They are written by journalists, politicians, organizations, bike and ped enthusiasts/supporters, transit supporters, planners, and members of the general public. Their complaints against the bill seem to stem from their hatrid of roads and gas and their love of transit and bike/ped facilities and some from their reliance on the non-road programs funded by past bills. And while I might agree with them that roads and our reliance on gas are non-sustainable and antiquated, I cannot ignore that the majority of the public depends on our road system and wants us to fix roads.
The very basic fact of this situation is we currently have a population highly dependent on cars and roads for movement of people, goods, and services. Past transportation bills did not focus on the support of this system. Instead they took money paid by the users of this system and used it to pay for systems supporting bikes, peds, transit, museums, streetscapes, etc. I realize the reasoning behind this was that somehow by building all these other facilities we would offset the negative environmental impact of the road system. And while these other improvements did help offset some impacts and increased our quality of life, they did little to remove our reliance on the road system. Instead past transportation bills have depleted our user fees and left us with a crumbling road system that has been neglected too long with no way to pay for fixing it.
So it appears Congress has somehow figured out what all of us having to actually manage the road system have always known: if we are going to rely on the road system, we need transportation money to fix the roads. Just try to imagine if tomorrow you woke up and the roads were gone and all we had were bikes and transit as it exists today. How would you get to work? How would your kids get to school? How would your garbage get picked up? How would the grocery store where you shop get their product? How would an ambulance get to your home? If the water pipes broke in your home and you could not fix them, is the plumber going to ride his bike to your home pulling a cart with his tools? Whether we personally use roads or not, we all rely on roads. And as long as we do, can we really afford to ignore their repair?
The other problem Congress seems to be addressing is the gas tax issue. We have been losing revenue from the gas tax due to more efficient cars and less use of gas by the public. Congress does not want to raise the gas tax because that would be highly unpopular, and hopefully they realize that is not a sustainable solution even in the short term. Now, I am not even close to being very knowledgeable about how the whole energy ecosystem operates so I am looking at this from a very basic viewpoint. But it seems they have decided that if they can’t raise taxes, they need to increase the public’s use of gas. The only way that will happen is if gas prices fall. So it makes me wonder if this drilling provision is to increase the gas supply which could lead to a lowering of the prices. I realize there are probably other incentives and reasons for them to allow drilling, but those are unrelated to the gas tax.
While I am not supportive of the drilling provision, I can see why they would choose this route. Congress has ignored moving forward on the study of an alternative to the gas tax so any other solution would take too long to implement. Some alternatives also have the potential to be a disruption to the public and auto-related industries. So perhaps the drilling ended up as the most obvious solution to them for the moment. I am not sure there is another expedient solution other than raising taxes. And I’ve not heard any other solutions from the opponents of the bill.
It’s somewhat ironic that the bill’s opponents want Congress to enact the same old legislation that pays for all the non-road components with the money generated by the use of roads, but they don’t want to pay to sustain the roads. That simply is not sustainable, and those of us working at the bottom knew eventually this would fall apart. It appears we are finally reaching that point. But because I share the opponent’s frustration with our reliance on gas and roads and I enjoy and support bike/ped/transit facilities, I would prefer to see the opponents channel their passion and energy into making a real change. We need to admit the old way of paying for the non-road systems is not sustainable. And complaining about roads and urging Congress to neglect their repair is not practical. If we don’t want our tax dollars supporting roads, we need to remove our reliance on them. And the only way to do that is to develop an alternative. We have a tremendous opportunity at hand to move forward and work together to create a well thought out infrastructure that is sustainable, efficient, more economical and friendly to the environment. A good start is to accept we need to unfortunately spend money to fix the system upon which we now rely and shift our focus to urging Congress to support the research and implementation of a new system that will meet our needs at all levels. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to figuring out how to pay for fixing the 100 miles of roadway in our little community of 20,000+, but with a little more hope on the horizon.
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