Monday, August 20, 2007

U.S. Infrastructure: The Free Ride Is Over!

In the wake of the Minnesota bridge collapse, editorial cartoons like this highlight one reason why the wealthiest country on earth counts a staggering 75,621 “structurally deficient” bridges.

Along with other significant parts of our infrastructure (like the old steam pipes under New York City, the levees in New Orleans, and airport capacity in several cities), our highways and bridges are suffering from decades of under-funding and neglect.

But there is a bigger culprit. Our infrastructures are decaying and getting dangerous because for 30 years American voters have bought the myth that we can enjoy a safe, efficient, economically productive public order without really paying for it. So many taxes have been cut at the federal, state and local levels that no government has the resources to cover basic cash flow, let alone the basic capital maintenance and improvements necessary to keep infrastructures from crumbling.

Nine years ago, an analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, a long-time cheerleader for 20th-century U.S. conservatism, said the conservative movement was born June 6, 1978, when California’s voters passed Proposition 13. See

The initiative said “The maximum amount of any ad valorem tax on real property shall not exceed One percent (1%) of the full cash value of such property.” It reduced California’s property tax revenue by 57%. And it virtually prohibited any future revision—requiring a 2/3 vote of both houses of the state legislature before any new state tax could be enacted.

Under the conservative mantra “That government is best which governs least,” Proposition 13’s spirit and practice have permeated American politics ever since. The sad state of our infrastructures nationwide is ample testimony to Proposition 13’s failure to provide for government’s most basic responsibilities.

Three things are obvious. A course correction is long overdue. Billions are needed to address just the highway problems we face. And no government in the United States is collecting enough revenue to begin the most urgent repairs.

The least painful quick-fix I’ve seen lately is a proposal by columnist Neal Peirce to levy a federal excise tax on the purchase of any new vehicle, calculated on road wear-and-tear based on weight-per-wheel. His proposal is at

This excise tax would have minimal negative impact on the economy or even motor vehicle sales. Peirce argues that the tax should average at least several hundred dollars per vehicle—“chump change in the prices haggled over each new vehicle. But the revenue would be a sure generator of needed billions for the roadways.”

Such a ”Big New Tax” would avoid the political pitfalls of “the long-battered gas tax.” He says it was Congress’ awful record on transportation funding and irresponsible transportation earmarks that enabled President Bush to dismiss the recently proposed 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax. Peirce would dedicate the revenue from an excise tax on vehicles to a bridge and road safety repair fund, then supplement it with other user-fees for other critical infrastructure needs.

He would agree that the free ride started by Proposition 13 has come to an end. And he has fightin’ words for those who deny it: “To the visceral anti-taxers, I say: Wake up, smell the coffee. If you don’t want to pay for roads, stop driving.”

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