Written by Alec MacDonald Wednesday, 01 August 2012 18:19
“In the United States we have been so parsimonious with our transportation funding that our older systems have been allowed to fall apart,” declared Rod Diridon, Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. Addressing the issue of aging transportation infrastructure in an interview with the Monitor, the former Saratoga city councilmember and Santa Clara county supervisor repeatedly emphasized that the real problem boils down to dollar signs.
“We know where the aging infrastructure is, we know where the mass transportation choke points are, we know where the highway choke points are, and it’s just a matter now of finding the funding to implement the remedies,” he said, explaining that Bay Area transportation planners have fixes in mind, but no finances in hand.
He offered a few suggestions for how to generate those finances, starting with raising taxes on gasoline. Although the idea would seem a political nonstarter, especially under the current economic conditions, Diridon claimed “the public will accept it if they know where the money is going and they know it’s not going into administrative overhead.” Research from his organization has suggested as much; MTI conducted a national survey in March that found 58 percent of respondents supported adding 10 cents to the federal gas tax to help pay for maintenance of streets, roads, and highways. And Diridon believes that with the erratic fluctuation of gas prices “up and down like a yo-yo, a 10-cent gas tax increase isn’t even going to be observed by the public.”
Vigilant pump watchers will surely disagree, and nowhere more strongly than in car-crazy California. In fact, earlier this year there was talk in Sacramento of capping state gas taxes to ease the burden on drivers.
Those who favor such action may not welcome Diridon’s other suggestions for covering infrastructure rehabilitation costs, either. Anticipating that gas taxes will yield diminishing returns as vehicles gradually consume less gas due to improvements in fuel efficiency, he argued that a use tax might serve as a preferable long-term alternative. In this scenario, drivers would be charged a fee based on how many miles they travel. Diridon mentioned that Oregon has already been testing the waters on this possibility, and indeed, the Corvallis Gazette-Times reported that in 2013 the state Legislature will likely consider a bill levying such a tax on electric cars.
While charging this kind of fee for car use represents uncharted territory, fees for road use have been around a long time and represent another option. Diridon pointed out that Europe has extensive tollways, as does the East Coast, and that those thoroughfares benefit from proper maintenance and regular upgrades because they create their own revenue. He noted Bay Area bridges enjoy the same arrangement, and speculated that the region’s highways might need to follow suit in charging tolls — a strategy that “is effective, but it isn’t very popular.”
None of Diridon’s suggestions stand to win unanimous approval, but he’s hoping for enough to achieve some measure of change in the status quo. Otherwise, he sees dire consequences ahead.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s and early ’70s we were the best in the world at moving people and product,” he contended. “Now we’re far behind every other industrialized country in terms of modern mass transportation systems, and even modern highways.” In his estimation, failure to keep up with the pace of infrastructure enhancement has put the U.S. at an enormous competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace. He predicted that industries will abandon commercial hubs such as Silicon Valley if transportation gridlock hits a critical mass, “because they have to be able to get their people to work.”
Not only did he forecast trouble for the economy, he also expressed concern about the environment, due to the emissions produced by all that gridlock. “I have children and grandchildren, and I worry about the condition of the world that we’re leaving them,” he said in apprehension over changes to the climate created by those emissions. Bemoaning the fact that America represents only four percent of the planet’s population yet produces 30 percent of its greenhouse gases, he reckoned that “eventually we’re going to become a pariah.”
Remaining fixated on global comparisons, Diridon again stressed a broad view in his final comment. “If we don’t maintain our infrastructure and modernize it,” he concluded, “then we will not be able to compete internationally.”
Postscript: After this interview was conducted, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments authorized study of a proposed vehicle miles traveled tax at a joint meeting on July 19.