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Sanderson believes there’s a critical new for a new, long-term housing bill that will also provide for stable funding and maintenance of the nation’s system of highways and bridges. The problem, he says, is that available funds fall far short of what’s needed for repairs and new construction. And legislators can’t agree on where the additional money is coming from. The existing system is based on user fees in the form of a federal tax on gasoline. But the tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and since that time it has lost 62 percent of its purchasing power due to inflation, and 14 percent from the manufacture of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
It would appear that an increase in the fuel tax is off the table for now, but Sanderson isn’t so sure. He notes that business and trucking interests strongly favor an increase in the tax, which he calls “a very efficient way to collect funds.” Alternative proposals such as tolling and a vehicle-mileage-based tax (VMT) are much more expensive ways to collect revenue, “and there’s far greater chance of abuse.” The main obstacle to a gas-tax increase, he says, is a belief by the public that the money wouldn’t be spent on highways. That has been the case in the past, when portions of the Highway Trust Fund were earmarked for other purposes.
“It’s very hard to believe that the federal government will dedicate that money to repair of the interstate highway system,” says Sanderson. But the same question would exist for a system based on tolling on a VMT.
The main problem with the federal gas tax is that it wasn’t indexed to inflation, Sanderson says. As a result, its ability to keep pace with infrastructure needs erodes year by year. “We would be in a far better position today if it had been [indexed] back then,” he says.
Transportation is further hampered today by a decline in driver productivity, caused in part by new regulations. The stricter hours-of-service requirements have effectively removed 3 to 5 percent of trucking capacity from the roads, says Sanderson.
He also expressed doubts about the use by shippers of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA) scores as a guide to carrier selection. The General Accounting Office supports the position that those scores are not an accurate indication of an individual carrier’s propensity for accidents. “Only if you take thousands of carriers and average them is there a correlation between [CSA] scores and safety,” he says.
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