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Roads should be funded as utilities are

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Samuel G. Bonasso Samuel G. Bonasso
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Samuel G. Bonasso is president of Reinforced Aggregates Co. and is a career civil engineering consultant, structural engineer and inventor, and he is an adjunct civil engineering professor at West Virginia University. He is former West Virginia secretary of transportation.

In West Virginia the surface transportation system is our most important utility (something useful to or designed for use by the public, from Webster's New World Dictionary). It is perhaps our most important utility since it supports the supply of all the basic necessities required by the human population, including food, shelter, clothing, water, sewer, electricity, education, recreation, health care, law and order, entertainment, etc. When it is not functioning properly, these essential needs are delayed and sometimes not available.

The American Society of Civil Engineers says of the nation's transportation system that the state of repair gets a barely passing grade and the backlog of needed improvements is great. It's increasingly clear that the nation's transportation system is indeed a vital utility that is losing its utility. This is also true in West Virginia. The transportation budget at the state Department of Transportation is the same today as it was in 1999.

At the heart of this matter in WV are two factors:

 

  • Increased demand for transportation facilities because of growth in economic activity particularly in the extractive industries; and 
  • The continued under investment and the lack of commitment to long-term solutions by policy makers at all levels. 

 

About 75 to 80 percent of Americans would prefer to have safe, efficient and well-maintained transportation infrastructure over cable, cell phone, internet, water, sewage and household electricity and natural gas services, according to a report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

The findings come from a poll conducted to find the value Americans place on road and transit network. Among other poll findings were:

 

  • 78 percent said driving a motor vehicle is important in their daily lives;
  • 21 percent considered public transportation to be an important part of their daily lives;
  • 88 percent found infrastructure to be important to maintaining a strong economy;
  • 83 percent attribute transportation as important to ensure national defense and emergency response capabilities;
  • 74 percent said "investing in transportation infrastructure should be a core function of the federal government."

 

However, 40 percent of respondents in the survey didn't know how much they pay in gas taxes. According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, the average U.S. household paid $46 per month in gas taxes in 2011.

But 24 percent of respondents estimated they pay more than double what FHWA reported. In fact, the amount of gas tax respondent's estimate they pay would require buying about 5,400 miles per month worth of gas, while FHWA data show the average household drives about 2,100 each month.

And though respondents say they'd rather have improved roads over certain utilities or other services, the average household spends about 3.5 times more each month for household electricity and natural gas service than for state and federal gas taxes, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Additionally, most Americans pay 3.5 times more each month for phone services and 2.5 times more for television services, radio and Internet access.

Transportation, particularly highways, are fundamental to the economic well-being of modern society and should be under the guidance of a special public transportation utility body capable of guiding its funding, operation and upkeep. With oversight from the state public utility board, this body should be empowered to generate new sources of revenue associated with the operation of highway system as they are needed. Such a transportation utility board should be established with all the usual powers of a port authority i.e. bonding power, eminent domain, etc. As a utility, transportation should be treated like sewage, water, electricity, waste disposal, natural gas, telephone, etc. The user of the system should be paying for the use of the system at an appropriate rate that reflects the cost of constructing, operating and replacing it.

A user fee approach makes sense since the transportation system functions as a public utility comparable to municipal water and sewer systems. Those utilities are funded by charging users based on how much they use the systems, and transportation funding can be approached in a similar way. Properties that cause more traffic by the nature of their use are responsible for a greater portion of the wear and tear on transportation infrastructure and might reasonably be expected to make larger contributions toward maintenance expenses. In many instances, the establishment of a transportation utility fee is motivated by a revenue shortfall and a backlog of road maintenance projects.

We don't have a tax problem; we have a spending problem. People have lost trust in their government representatives to actually spend their money on the roads wisely. People rarely feel that way about sewer and water and electricity. The user fee principle says that the user is always willing to pay for the use of the specific benefit.

Instead of opposing increases in the gas tax, or offering useless, less objectionable tax measures as the cure to woeful transportation investment and funding, we should establish a utility fee, a vehicle miles travel fee in the form of a tire tax or other similar funding mechanisms that provides accountability and a direct link between the service requested and the benefit provided. That reflects the true value of a utility. If we don't start paying the true cost of using it, it will continue to deteriorate.