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We can get there from here to maintain road system

August 20, 2011
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

We drive; therefore, we need roads and bridges - well maintained ones, unless we want to waste lives and, in the long term, money for no better reason than short-term cheapness.

Roads and bridges are public works that must be fed with taxes, and yes, their appetite is immense. States like Texas and California say they must build hundreds of billions of dollars worth of new roads to keep pace with steep population growth. While we don't have to undertake every new project our president, governor, mayor or transportation engineers propose, we must counteract the deterioration of the roads and bridges we have.

Currently, New York struggles even to repave busy, broken highways like state Route 86 between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, and it has knowingly let some of its bridges become dangerous, without funds or any real plan to replace them. Together with Vermont, our state managed to close and replace the long-crumbling Champlain Bridge before it collapsed beneath a line of traffic, but we only narrowly avoided such a tragedy. The condition of some other bridges raises fears that what happened over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2007, or over Schoharie Creek near Amsterdam in 1987, could reoccur. That's the gist of the Utica Observer-Dispatch's editorial linked to at right.

New York must put up the money and planning necessary to keep what it has - forget about building new infrastructure for now - or face deadly, avoidable situations that would expose the state to national ridicule and liability. We knew when we built these roads and bridges that we'd have to maintain, repair and at some point replace them, and the state should schedule those things into transportation budgets. Paying for roads is one of the most basic functions of taxes, and the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets.

That's where the second linked editorial at right comes in. We agree with the New York Times that the federal gas tax must be extended now and gradually increased to keep up with inflation and the heavier use of federal highways than when the tax was last hiked in 1993.

Gov. Cuomo and congressional Republicans are adamantly opposed to any tax increase right now, but think about this: Gas taxes, when used to pay for road infrastructure, are just about the fairest taxes there are. The people who use the service pay for it, and proportionally. Tractor-trailers wear out interstates faster than sedans and also have to pay more in fuel taxes. Canadian and Mexican trucks and tourists use our nation's highways, and they also help pay for them every time they fill up here. In sum, the more you drive on roads and bridges, and the heavier a vehicle you drive on them, the more you pay for them.

Think about this in terms of another public infrastructure system - village water and sewer pipes. The total cost of maintaining that network must be zeroed out by the total of users' bills, which go up and down with cost changes as well as with use. Currently in Saranac Lake, for example, bills are rising because the village is getting a new water source (which, really, the state should pay for since it changed the rules and ordered the village to replace its adequate water source, but that's another story). What if our fuel taxes balanced our roads and bridges like that? It's about as capitalist as taxes can be - more like fees for services rendered.

Tolls can be a relatively fair, user-based way to help pay for a new bridge or highway, but they should go away when the bridge or highway is paid for. The fact that tolls rarely end is one reason people hate them, but it does happen: For example, in 2008, the Canadian province of British Columbia lifted its $10 toll on the Coquihalla Highway after two decades.

Maintaining our road network isn't that hard and can be paid for more fairly than it is now, as long as elected leaders are willing to govern reasonably and pragmatically. Since it is something that almost everyone uses and wants maintained, its funding should be a higher priority than other, more controversial government services that serve more limited segments of the population.

Good roads keep the economy moving and keep people safe. There's no good reason to let them go.



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