Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Road system's cold reality

The choice between pleasurable fancy and disagreeable reality is hard for leaders to make any time. It is especially hard when people are imbued with the notion that taxes are way too high and led to expect their lowering, not raising.

So it is with transportation. Everyone loves good roads and streets and expects them. We would like to believe that the motor-fuel taxes and registration fees are high enough to maintain the road system and keep apace of the needs of a growing population.

Jim McKenzie, the Metroplan director, who is paid to peer into the future, told us this week what the cold reality is.
Congestion on central Arkansasís highway system is going to get worse and worse, the roads will deteriorate under the pounding and current taxes will support less and less road work.

The arithmetic is elementary. Skyrocketing oil prices are driving the cost of road materials through the ceiling while gradually improving vehicle fuel efficiency produces fewer and fewer tax revenues per mile traveled. Under those circumstances the metropolitan areaís long-range transportation plan is no more than a dream, McKenzie said. Completing the North Belt Freeway and the widening of Highway 67-167 may be out of the question, too.

The state is not taking in enough highway taxes both to maintain the existing roads and undertake major expansions.
The state Highway and Transportation Department has been saying the same thing; it has always said the same thing. McKenzie localized the issue.

Visionary planner that he is, McKenzie offered two options, higher highway-user taxes or a wholesale commitment to mass transit. If you have traveled in continental Europe or the great American metropolises, mass transit does seem so smart.
You can zip across Europe or from berg to berg conveniently and relatively cheaply by the omnipresent trains and buses.
The highways are good, too, though you donít find the broad and busy expressways that you see around American metropolises, or even Little Rock.

The reason is that cars and trucks are smaller and far more efficient than those on U. S. roads. European vehicles average 36 miles per gallon, those on our roads a mere 21. A new generation of even smaller and far more economical cars will push the European average above 40 mpg, twice ours, by the end of the decade.

Smaller, faster cars and the diversion of so much travel to mass transit keeps crowded Europe mostly free of road congestion except for the occasional stau on the Autobahn.

The huge burden of fuel taxes all across Europe provides money to maintain a super transportation network and, of course, drives automakers and travelers to more and more efficient vehicles. We donít have those incentives in the United States, not yet.

But a super mass transit system, including even the sparse light-rail network that urban planners have talked about, is not a realistic option for central Arkansas now.

The population is not dense enough and the cultural attachment to automobile travel too intense for government to force so dramatic a change of habit. A wholesale investment in mass transit, which would necessarily come at the expense of roadwork, is simply not salable. Before long we will have to commit higher highway taxes.

The legislature raises motor fuel taxes or vehicle registration fees, or both, about every 10 years. It typically raises gasoline and diesel by 2 to 4 cents a gallon.

It raised it once by a nickel a gallon. Gradually rising fuel efficiency means that the higher taxes usually offset the improved efficiency. Unless you drive a gas-guzzling old clunker ó the misfortune of poorer people ó you come out about even with the government after each tax increase.

Actually, Arkansans on average now pay less in taxes per mile traveled considering inflation than they did 75 years ago during the Great Depression. The rate has risen from 6 cents a gallon in 1932 to 21.5 cents a gallon. It was last raised, by 4 cents a gallon, in 1999.

In another 14 months, January 2009, the legislature will convene again and you should not be surprised and neither should you be disappointed if there is an effort to raise those taxes again, by more than a nickel a gallon. It is the price of civilization.