RoadWorks

| December 1, 2010

Going up?

Fuel tax hike opponents now have fewer places  to hide.

By John Latta, Tina Grady Barbaccia and Mike Anderson

The pressure on Congress to raise fuel taxes has just been increased.

A preliminary report by the co-chairs of the President’s deficit commission, and another by two maverick senators have applied the extra pressure.

The preliminary report proposes a 15-cent-per-gallon fuel tax hike and also proposes that the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) be dedicated once again to highways and bridges only (no transit, no bike paths, no parks) and take no money from the General Fund. The net effect would be more money from fuel taxes and no leakage to nonhighway projects. In other words, the HTF would work the way it used to.

The final report may well be available before you get this issue of Better Roads. We are running this story to help your understanding of the full report.

The Deficit Commission (officially the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) co-chairs Republican Alan Simpson, a former Senator from Wyoming, and Democrat Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff, released the preliminary report that they said contains their ideas not the final commission’s plan. The 18-member, bipartisan commission panel report was due December 1.

I had suggested in my September Lattatudes column that this commission may be a “back door” way to raise fuel taxes. An uninformed American public has not embraced the idea that new fuel tax money would go toward highway and bridge work only, even though almost all of it will, and with the deficit co-chairs’ preliminary report, all of it will. As part of a tough deficit-fighting package that will start a ruckus and get the public’s attention – and increase their understanding – a vital fuel tax increase has a chance.

The two senators from the Environment and Public Works Committee, Thomas Carper (D-Del.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), have called for a gradual increase in the gasoline tax by 25 cents over three years. They sent their proposal to the commission just days before its preliminary report surfaced, asking that it be included in the final report to the President.

Under the senators’ proposal, 10 cents of the 25-cent increase would be dedicated temporarily to deficit reduction, providing about $83 billion over five years, according to the letter. The other 15 cents, which would be used for transportation projects, would amount to about $117 billion of new funds over five years. This is the formula used in the past when a gas tax raise came via deficit reduction legislation. It happened in 1990 and again in 1993. Under President George H. W. Bush, the gas tax was upped by 5 cents, half of that amount going to the HTF and half to deficit reduction. President Bill Clinton raised the gas tax another 4.3 cents, all of it for deficit reduction. The deficit’s 2.5 cents from the Bush legislation was legislatively redirected to HTF in October 1995. In 1997 Congress redirected Clinton’s 4.3 cents the HTF.

Additionally, said the two senators, the fuel tax would be indexed to inflation after the 25-month period. They said that new revenues from the tax increase would be put in a Treasury escrow account, where it would stay until Congress can approve a new multiyear surface transportation bill.

The senators argued that a gas tax increase is the only solution to an impending dilemma, as the Highway Trust Fund continues to fall short of revenues. Another General Fund transfer would add to the federal deficit. But without a general-fund transfer, outlays to states and localities would have to be reduced, which would damage the overall economy by increasing unemployment as infrastructure projects are delayed or stopped, they argued.

Leaders of more key transportation, construction and labor groups backed the Commission chairs’ preliminary proposal, calling it “bold but necessary.”

“The proposal recognizes the integral relationship between improving transportation infrastructure, economic health and fiscal responsibility. If enacted, it will help prevent economically devastating cuts in federal infrastructure investment and remove the primary obstacle to passage of a multimodel surface transportation reauthorization bill.

“The issue of transportation investment is directly linked to balancing the federal budget. Without new Highway Trust Fund revenue, policymakers will be forced either to impose a highway and transit program cut that would reduce payrolls and impede economic growth; or add an estimated $34 billion over the next six years to General Fund spending,” said the leaders of the groups.

American Road and Transportation Builders Association president Pete Ruane says of the preliminary report: “The passage of a new highway and transit investment bill has been languishing on Capitol Hill for more than 13 months amidst record construction industry unemployment and uncertainty about the future of federal and state transportation programs”.

Ruane also calls the Carper-Voinovich proposal “the first concrete, bipartisan proposal to finance new legislation in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Former Transportation Secretaries Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner, co-chairs of the Miller Center of Public Affairs’ David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Conference [see our story, page 32], say of the co-chairs’ draft recommendation: “We applaud the commission chairmen’s recognition that we cannot continue to use general taxpayer dollars to bail out the Highway Trust Fund. . . . We call for a short-term increase in the gas tax to restore our user-pays system, but ultimately America must move beyond the gas tax to a 21st-century pay-as-you-go system. . . . Unless we transition away from a tax on fossil fuel as our central funding mechanism, it will be impossible to avoid future bailouts from the General Fund.”v

John Latta

Look Ma,No Hands

Think you could drive from Italy to China? Without actually driving?

A van running without anyone actually driving, officially an “Intelligent driverless vehicle,” has driven 8,000 miles from Parma, Italy, to Shanghai. Twelve refined sensors allowed the vehicle to drive safely in very different types of traffic, weather and road conditions.

For more than three months this orange van, an “intelligent, nonpolluting vehicle, powered by green energy,” according to its handlers, made its way from Italy, across Eastern Europe, Russia, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Siberia and into China. A sort of modern Marco Polo.

The van left Italy on July 20. It reached the Chinese border in 80 days, and then drove across the Gobi desert and on to coastal Shanghai. The experimental journey, led by Prof. Alberto Broggi, was part of a research project on autonomous driving, funded largely by the European Research Council (ERC).

Broggi from Parma University, Italy, said after the journey: “This test drive has been incredible and we’re happy we made it to the finishing line without major problems. We travelled in different environments, from hectic motorways to isolated mountain roads and desert tracks, and in rain, blizzard and strong sunlight. The van even gave a hitchhiker a driverless lift. We had to intervene manually only on limited occasions, such as in the Moscow traffic jams and when passing toll stations.”

No maps were used, partly because the van travelled across off-the-beaten-track areas in Siberia and China. The project used low-cost technologies that can relatively easily be integrated in most vehicles’ chassis, says the ERC, and could in the future help improve road safety and have a positive impact on fuel efficiency and more.

There were minor glitches. At one point, one van bumped into the vehicle ahead of it when the first one stopped. But scientists quickly found the problem. After their last stop they had forgotten to correctly turn back on the system.v

John Latta

Misleading numbers

In our November issue, we ran a story that was the result of our annual inventory of the nation’s bridges. Some of the data was misleading in the way it was presented due to an editing error that conflated Interstate and State bridge totals. FHWA bridge engineers pointed out the problem to us. They wrote:

The Better Roads article on “The State of Your Bridges” is very misleading on the status of the nation’s bridges and definitely gives the wrong impression to the public, particularly in its reference to the status of Interstate bridges. The nation’s Interstate bridges are in much better condition than the impression one gets when reading the article. The article has a number of

inaccuracies when it confuses “Total Interstate & State Bridges” with “Total Interstate Bridges.” We counted five places in the article where reference is made to

“Interstate Bridges” and it should have been “Interstate & State Bridges.” The two tables for “Highest Percentage of SD/FO Interstate Bridges” and “The Top 10 states with total number of Interstate SD/FO bridges” are incorrect and the numbers and percentages shown in the tables refer to “Total Interstate & State Bridges” and not just “Interstate bridges.”

The November digital edition of Better Roads has been corrected.

Say what?

“Our system of transportation is the greatest of any country in the world. But we must face facts. We must be realistic. We must know — and we must have the courage to let our people know — that our system is no longer adequate.”

– President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966

.

Help Available to Fight Speeding Crashses

Speeding is considered a contributing factor in approximately one-third of all fatal vehicle crashes. In 2008, there were 37,261 fatalities on our roads, of which 11,674 (31 percent) were speeding-related.

The cost of speeding-related crashes is estimated at more than $40 billion a year. That’s almost one-fifth of the total cost of crashes.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) says the nation’s Interstate system has the best safety record of all roads and the lowest fatality rate of all road classes. In 2003, 86 percent of speeding-related fatalities occurred on roads that were not Interstate highways. Almost 50 percent of speeding-related fatalities occur on lower-speed collector (usually 55 mph or less limit) and local roads (often 35 mph or less limit), which carry only 27.9 percent of the total vehicle miles traveled.

So U.S. DOT set up the multimodal, multidisciplinary Speed Management Team to attack the problem.

A number of factors, alone or interacting, influence speeding. What the public thinks is a fair speed and the link between that idea and the posted speed limit is a key one. The performance capabilities of the vehicle are another and so is the attitude of the driver behind the wheel. Broadly, road design also impinges on speed, as do the characteristics of the road, its surface and the road’s load and environment. Law enforcement habits and practices also influence drivers. “Accordingly,” says FHWA, “an interdisciplinary approach involving engineering, enforcement, and education is needed.” This comprehensive approach is “speed management.” With speed management, FHWA has a number of goals, including: applying road design and engineering measures to obtain appropriate speeds; setting speed limits that are both safe and reasonable; applying enforcement efforts and appropriate technology that effectively targets crash-producing speeders and deters speeding; effectively marketing communication and educational messages that focus on high-risk drivers; and soliciting the cooperation, support and leadership of traffic safety stakeholders.”

The U.S. DOT established the Speed Management Strategic Initiative to work toward reducing the number of speeding-related fatalities and serious injuries. A variety of resources are available on the Speed Management Safety website at http://www.safety.fhwa.dot.gov/speedmgt.v

2 bears, 3 elk, 1 coyote (roadkill)

I-90 Wildlife Watch (www.i90wildlifewatch.org) is a citizen-based wildlife monitoring project that invites motorists to report wildlife sightings along Interstate 90 in the Snoqualmie Pass region of Washington.

Why? So we can better understand how this road affects wildlife and so make the road safer for wildlife and people. Roads interrupt animals’ natural travel patterns, but until this initiative reports of animals have been sporadic at best in this vast area. I-90 intersects the rugged Cascade Mountains in Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass region, a critical link in the north-south movement of wildlife.

So if you’re passing through, log on and record the wildlife you see (dead or alive i.e. the website also wants sightings of dead critters).

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