Pothole Nation: Who’s to blame?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Pothole Nation
New Orleans Brightmoor pothole

POTHOLES ARE EVERYWHERE! Think it’s a “Northern problem”? This monster is on a side street in New Orleans. Photo by Bart Everson, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Do you have a pothole you love to hate?

Spring is finally here, giving us mild weather in which to enjoy the aftermath of the polar vortex: potholes. Tire-popping, frame-rattling, axle-snapping, backbone-jarring potholes. What’s the state of roads where you live? Who’s to blame for all the potholes?

The issue of potholes is a great values question because it involves so many principles and priorities. We loathe taxes but we want government services like durable roads. We can blame the potholes on local and state politicians, or the trucking industry, or poor urban planning, or global warming, or more. Maybe we just drive too much.

Michigan, my home state, spends less money per capita than any state in the union on roads and bridges, according to U.S. Census data. Neighboring states in the Midwest spend much more. But this hasn’t stopped the pothole problem in the region. Chicago has so many big potholes that a spoof appeared claiming that “missing plane found in Chicago pothole.” This was poor taste but it made a point.

A new poll of Michiganders reports that 28% blame the state legislature. Almost the same percentage (24%) blames Governor Snyder. Republicans are more likely to the blame the legislature, the poll finds, while Democrats are more likely to blame the governor—though they placed plenty of blame on the Republican-controlled legislature as well.

Fingers were also pointed at county government (9%), local government (7%), and special interest groups (8%). Only 5% laid blame on the voters. Twenty percent didn’t have an answer or were undecided.

What’s the state of roads where you live?

Where’s the pothole you love to hate?

Who’s to blame for all the potholes?

Pothole Nation: Your cost? You’ll pay $377

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Pothole Nation
TRIP national transportation research group

CLICK on this image form the TRIP website to read the group’s pothole report.

Today is Tax Day! The IRS tax filing deadline is a perfect time to talk about potholes, use taxes, and cost shifting. Politicians are afraid to raise taxes to maintain good roads, but are you getting taxed anyway?

This winter has been one of the harshest ever, taking a toll on the nation’s roads, highways, and bridges. American drivers are paying for it in frazzled nerves, aggravation, and money. Taxes may not go up, but you pay anyway.

Driving on pothole-riddled roads in urban areas costs the average driver about $377 per year in car repair, maintenance, additional fuel consumption, and worn tires, according to TRIP, a national transportation research group in Washington, D.C. That amounts to $80 billion nationwide. In the worst places, the cost is $800 per year.

In effect, these added costs are a form of use or excise tax. The more you drive, the higher your anticipated costs due to bad roads. It’s a form of cost shifting. You don’t pay actual taxes to a government, but you pay anyway for maintenance and repair. The only way to avoid this secret tax is to not drive.

But, all is not tax on Tax Day. Several stores and retailers offer freebies to offset the pain of Tax Day, according to an article in the Huffington Post. For example, Arby’s offers free fries (with a coupon), Boston Market offers discounts, McDonald’s offers a free small coffee in the morning hours, and Office Depot will shred five pounds of paper for free.

Have you experienced car damage or excessive wear because of potholes?

How do you feel about this secret potholes tax?

Pothole Nation: Is marijuana the answer?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Pothole Nation

Colbert covers the pot for potholes proposalShould vice serve virtue?

That’s the premise behind one idea for fixing potholes and maintaining good roads. It’s called “pot for potholes.” The idea is to legalize and tax marijuana, using the revenue for roads, highways, and bridges.

What do you think of “pot for potholes”?

A “pot for potholes” proposal was raised in Michigan last year, but it didn’t get very far—though Stephen Colbert had a heyday mocking it. Now, the idea has been raised in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

In some ways, legalizing and taxing marijuana to pay for roads is similar to legalizing gambling to pay for education. Proponents of legalized gambling said it would rescue public education. But it didn’t. The Michigan Lottery, for example, covers only 6.6% of the state’s education budget, as we’ve discussed on OurValues.org before. The real problem comes in when state legislators don’t add the new revenues to the education budget. The California State Lottery ran into this problem. California state legislators cut the state’s education budget and counted on the lottery to make up the cuts.

“Pot for potholes” could end up the same way. Instead of a supplement to state budgets for infrastructure repair and maintenance, the added revenue could be diverted to other uses or used as a replacement for cuts to state infrastructure budgets.

Oh, yes—and there is the morality issue of legalizing marijuana and asking vice to serve virtue.

What do you think of “pot for potholes”?

Do you think this proposal has merit?

Can it really help our pothole nation?

Pothole Nation: What is America’s grade on infrastructure?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Pothole Nation
Report Card on America's Infrastructure

Click on this logo to read the Report Card.

America has a Report Card on its infrastructure, given by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE). What grade does the country get?

Hint: It’s not even a “Gentleman’s C.”

In fact, if a schoolchild came home with America’s infrastructure grade, the kid would be grounded for a year.

The ASCE assigns grades from A to F on the basis of “physical condition and needed fiscal investments for improvement,” according to the ASCE web site. An overall GPA is given to the nation as a whole, and to each state. Grades are also broken down by infrastructure type, such as water and environment, transportation (bridges, roads, ports, transit, etc.), public facilities, and energy.

The nation’s overall grade is a D+. The nation has been getting poor grades for many years. “Since 1998,” says the ASCE, “the grades have been near failing, averaging only Ds, due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories.”

Of the 16 specific categories, 12 get grades in the D- to D+ range. The four highest grades are bridges (C+), ports (C), rail (C+), and solid waste (B-).

The estimated investment needed by 2020 to fix all this is a whopping $3.6 trillion.

Are you surprised by our near-failing grades?

If you were in charge, what would you do?

What would you fix first? Where would you start?

Pothole Nation: Symptom of an underlying disease?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Pothole Nation
WHO WILL PAY FOR THE REPAIRS? A new Gallup poll says Americans are not inclined to pay through taxes.

WHO WILL PAY FOR THE REPAIRS? A new Gallup poll says Americans are not inclined to pay through taxes.

Our long, brutal winter created a pothole problem.

This week we’ve focused on a wide range of related issues. There are many politicians, policies, special interest groups, and government agencies to blame, as we discussed Monday. We’ve covered how much it costs you in car repair and maintenance, whether legalizing and taxing pot is an answer to the pothole problem, and America’s dismal grades on its Report Card for infrastructure, given by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Today, we conclude by asking: Are potholes a symptom of a bigger problem?

What struck me about the ASCE’s report wasn’t the nation’s near-failing grade. It was the long history of bad grades. Since 1998, the nation has been averaging only Ds.

Potholes are a symptom of a chronic underlying condition. For years we’ve put off maintenance and under-invested in infrastructure. We can’t blame the recent economic recession. We’ve been doing this at least since 1998, which means we do it in economic booms and busts.

Are we reluctant to pay taxes for infrastructure? Some people have called taxes legalized theft, but the analogy crumbles when you think about it. When something is stolen from you, you get nothing in return. When we pay taxes, we get roads, education, defense, and more. Of course, we can quibble about how taxes are used, and whether they are used efficiently. But we do get something in return.

We Americans are allergic to taxes. Consider that now almost half of Americans (49%) say that that middle-income Americans pay too much when it comes to taxes, according to an April 2014 Gallup poll. That’s the highest since 1999. Those who say middle-income Americans pay their “fair share” is down 11 percentage points from last year.

The reality is that taxes have increased—but only for the top earners. Not for the middle class. The chronic problem, then, is that most Americans are unwilling to pay for better roads and infrastructure. Better to keep taxes low. Let the next generation deal with the infrastructure.

Just watch those potholes!

Are potholes a symptom of a bigger problem?

Would you support a tax increase if it was devoted to infrastructure repair and maintenance?