Improved roads and highways would help economy, save lives

April 15, 2014

Last week the rubber met the road in Gov. Jack Markell’s push to increase the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon: DelDOT released a list of road projects that would be at risk if the gas tax wasn’t raised.

The list included projects of great importance to the Cape Region, including improvements to Route 24, Plantation Road and the routes 1 and 16 intersection, where last month a 25-year-old man ran a stop sign and was killed.

The young man’s death reminded me of a foggy evening many years ago when I was traveling south on Route 1 just north of Route 16. A driver - who apparently didn’t see the stop sign - roared across Route 1 at 60 mph only a couple hundred yards ahead of me. (I’m pretty sure it was stop sign then and not a light.)

As it was, nothing happened to me or other drivers on the road. But it was only a matter of seconds between an alarming, but harmless close call and getting T-boned at highway speeds.

With adequate funding, DelDOT would put an overpass at routes 1 and 16, improving safety and traffic flow. The need for improvements to Route 24 and Plantation Road is self-evident. The best argument against increasing the gas tax is that it’s a regressive tax. Lower-and middle-income drivers would pay a higher percentage of their earnings than those with higher incomes.

If it hadn’t been nearly 20 years since the gas tax was raised, I would find that argument more compelling. But as a practical matter, the gas tax has steadily decreased since 1995 even as the number of drivers and needed transportation projects have grown. It’s also fair that people who use the roads more pay to maintain them.

(In Maryland, some legislators railed against fee increases to pay for transportation improvements but - after the measure was passed - demanded road projects in their districts. Naturally.)

Republicans refer to the proposed hike as a 43 percent increase. This is literally true, but misleading, for two reasons.

First, Delaware’s current tax is 23 cents, but when you add the 18.4 cent federal tax it comes to 41.4 cents per gallon. For motorists the tax hike would feel more like a 25 percent increase. Which is still steep.

But the far more important factor is time: It’s been 19 years since the gas tax was raised. Markell’s proposed “increase” would only raise the tax closer to what was. To match the buying power of 23 cents in 1995, the state would have to raise its gas tax by 13 cents instead of 10 cents. (That’s according to the DollarTimes Inflation Calculator, which figures 2.36 percent annual inflation, 1995-2014.)

Even if the full 10-cent increase were enacted, we would effectively still be paying less than we did in the mid-’90s. Is that really so bad?

The Republican solution is to move DelDOT’s operating budget back into the general fund over the next seven years, at a rate of $38 million a year. The operating budget is now paid for by the Transportation Trust Fund, which receives money from the gas tax. (The trust fund was originally designed to pay for transportation projects only. It was raided in the ’90s to help balance the budget.)

Moving DelDOT’s trust fund back into the operating budget is a good idea. That’s where it belongs. But finding $266 million over the next seven years is a tall order.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, suggested cutting $7.49 million worth of Markell’s new initiatives. That’s a start but, in a separate context, Republican legislators I’ve talked to offer few specifics for cutbacks.

That leads me to think legislators are unlikely to find the $266 million unless state revenues were to rise dramatically. And they would have to do this while a former cash cow - gambling revenues - gets weaker by the year.

The most likely result would be endless squabbles and underfunded transportation projects. That’s not good enough. Inferior infrastructure harms economic development and costs human lives. The advantage of Markell’s plan is that we would definitely see needed improvements. The state would also benefit from added construction jobs.

The Republican alternative would most likely be a continuation of the status quo. Even under Markell’s plan, the state would have a hard time catching up on transportation projects. Under the Republican plan, we would fall further behind.

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