Gas-sipping cars good/bad news for highways

Volkswagen is pushing a diesel-powered sedan that gets 41 miles a gallon; if it doesn’t fold first, General Motors will have its Volt in the showrooms in a year or two. As the name tells us, the Volt runs on batteries that can be charged overnight at home. Toyota’s Prius is a combination gasoline and electric car that gets 40-60 miles to the gallon.
Every carmaker has more fuel efficient vehic-les on its drawing board.
All of these vehicles have one thing in common, they don’t stop at filing stations half as often as the majority of the cars on the road — so they pay about half as much state and federal fuels taxes.
Question: Where will the money come from 10 years from now — when the gas-guzzlers have turned to scrap — to build and maintain highways? Answer: The fuels tax must be increased and other sources of income must be found to keep America’s road and highway network in passable shape.
One of the gee-whiz gadgets being tested measures how many miles a vehicle travels in a month. A bill is then sent to the owner. It’s a fair tax because it is based on use. The charge per mile would also reflect the vehicle’s weight. Still in the experimental stage, the system would cost a ton to implement. Expensive technology would have to be installed in every vehicle and even more expensive banks of computers would be required to receive the information, calculate the charge and collect the money.
In the meantime, interest groups concerned with personal privacy would organize against the technology because it would create a record of where a car traveled, stop by stop, hour by hour and that, they would contest, is no-body’s business. Another group would be busy finding ways to foil the system to avoid the charge.
More pragmatic an-swers must be found in the interim because state highway departments can’t wait for the new era to take over.
First, the federal tax that hasn’t been in-creased since 1997 should be doubled to 36.5 cents for gasoline, 50 cents for diesel. Second, the states should increase their fuels tax while there is still fuel being sold. Doubling the state and federal fuels taxes would still leave U.S. fuel taxes at 20 percent or less of those in Europe. This step should be taken now because the need is now. Highways, bridges and secondary roads need continual maintenance, some of which falls under the rebuilding category.
State revenues from the fuels tax are steadily falling because fewer miles are being driven and vehicles have be-come progressively more fuel-efficient. At the same time, road maintenance and construction have become more costly. Without a renewed flow of cash into state highway departments this combination will rapidly result in serious deteri-oration of the nation’s land transportation ar-teries.
Long term, a combination of new revenue sources and new transportaton resources will be required.
The administration’s plan to build high speed railroad corridors to create jobs now and provide an alternative to air and highway transport from now on will take some of the pressure off highway systems.
Further expansion of railroads could provide an alternative to the ever-growing fleets of semi-trailers that beat up highways at a ferocious rate. Perhaps there also is an opportunity to ex-pand barge traffic to take still more trucks off the road.
In sum, the nation’s transportation scene is rapidly changing and must change more profoundly. Keeping a step ahead will make an important contribution to revitalizing the nation’s economy. Falling behind will make it worse.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.