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Friday, September 14, 2007

Gasoline Taxes and Bridge Collapses

  Gasoline Taxes and Bridge Collapses

What a tragedy it was when the I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed. Imagine the sheer terror experienced by the motorists as the bridge they were driving on began to collapse into the Mississippi River. In the 1800’s, bridge collapses were not unusual. In fact, one year, shortly before construction on the Brooklyn Bridge was approved by President Ulysses Grant in 1869, 40 bridges collapsed. The reoccurring problem was design flaws. Engineers simply did not have the design knowledge or the materials available to ensure that bridges would withstand the weight of the trains and carriages they carried. But this is more than 100 years later and bridges are not supposed to collapse. We have the technology and the construction materials they didn’t have in 1800’s. The investigation results are not in, but I would venture a guess that it wasn’t a design failure which caused the Minneapolis bridge to collapse, as was the case with the bridges built in the 1800’s. Quite likely, the cause of the collapse was a maintenance issue.

I can’t help but wonder if the collapse of this bridge and the loss of so many lives is not the direct result of what has happened to the use of gasoline tax dollars (both state and federal) over the past 30 years. 

I don’t particularly care for taxes, but I always thought that gasoline taxes at both the state and federal level came as close as possible to being the ideal tax. When they were originally instituted many, many years ago, the law stipulated that every dollar collected be spent exclusively on highways – maintenance and construction. It was a great concept, the people who paid gasoline taxes, who drove on the highways and roads, paid for highway maintenance and construction. It was perhaps the fairest tax ever instituted in the United States. This was the policy followed by both states and the federal government regarding the expenditure of gasoline taxes.

But, you see, you and I view taxes in a very different way than politicians. Beyond certain essentials, politicians view tax dollars as a means of getting re-elected. The French historian, Alexis De Tocqueville, who traveled the United States in 1831, observed that when American politicians realized they could perpetuate themselves in power by taxing, spending and electing, our democracy would be dead. Well, our democracy is not dead, but when professional politicians, who now populate both political parties, see the primary purpose of tax revenues as a means of getting themselves re-elected, it damages all of us. The collapse of the bridge in Minnesota is a sad example.

The politicians cheered loudly when they finally broke the highway trust fund in Congress. Actual cheering occurred because they had opened the door to spending more money for pork barrel projects and mass transportation that would generate votes in their home districts. They ignored common sense and the remarkable fairness of a system that used highway taxes exclusively to build and maintain highways. Shortly thereafter most states followed suit and cannibalized gasoline tax revenues for their general treasury.

Today, gasoline taxes, both state and federal, are spent entirely at the whim of the politicians. Instead of devoting all gasoline tax dollars to roads and bridges, they are spent on all sorts of silly things to cover shortfalls in tax revenue caused by irresponsible spending at the state and national level.

New highway construction could eliminate much of our stop and go traffic and simultaneously clean literal tons of pollution from our skies. Better bridge and tunnel maintenance could eliminate bridge collapses and tunnel problems such as those that occurred with the big dig. In short, spending gasoline tax dollars exclusively on highway construction and maintenance would help us breathe cleaner air and drive over safer bridges.

But I’m afraid we will never be able to put that genie back in the bottle. It’s a shame because congestion has never been worse, there is too much pollution, and the safety of our bridges, highways, and tunnels has never been in greater doubt. Much can be said about politicians, Republican and Democrat, but they will never be accused of having too much common sense.

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