Will the fate of Interstate 80 become a metaphor for America? If it does, this country’s painful decline will be self-inflicted.
Not that there is anything wrong with I-80 at the moment. It runs for 311 bucolic miles through the middle of Pennsylvania and is in generally good shape. In order to maintain the road and generate funds for other projects in the state, Pennsylvania’s legislature had approved a plan to place tolls on the road. The $472 million that would have been collected was supposed to cover about half what the state intended to spend on highways and public transportation.
The federal government turned down the state’s proposal, however. Even though this was the third time Washington rejected the idea of tolls, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers apparently had no Plan B. Now the governor will convene a special session of the legislature on May 4 to consider how to raise the money required or to decide where to cut.
While there are several different options, the most obvious one probably won’t get the serious discussion it deserves. Increasing the state fuel tax – which now stands at 32.3 cents per gallon – by about seven cents a gallon could fill the gap. The people using Pennsylvania’s roads would pay the tax and it would cost nothing more to collect. Gasoline prices have risen 80 cents a gallon since a year ago, and yet the republic still stands, so the burden is bearable.
In the current political climate, however, raising taxes is outside the realm of rational discussion. Those who are the loudest constantly demand lower taxes and less government and their mantra is reported as though it were a universally held belief.
The debate in the state legislature will therefore probably veer in the direction of which programs to cut and how much of I-80’s maintenance to defer. But deferring fixes will just add to the pain later; the total cost for state infrastructure repairs now equals $14 billion.
One alternative that will be considered is leasing the freeway to private companies. That is a popular approach to many public functions because it feeds into the notion that the government can do nothing right and the private sector can run anything well. The maligned Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, under investigation by the state’s attorney general and the FBI, seems to be a talking point in favor of that argument.
One strong incentive for privatization has nothing to do with the supposed superiority of the private sector. The corporations that profit from operating what was formerly a government program often recycle a portion of the proceeds to the elections campaigns of the politicians that made it possible. And the result has little to do with the public interest or efficiency.
Roads run by a private company will be operated to maximize the profits of the company leasing them. And as the financial services and banking industries have demonstrated, the marketplace does not always unfailingly allocate resources in the most effective manner.
At times the antitax sentiment seems exaggerated. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 6 out of 10 Republicans and independents and two-thirds of Democrats say the income tax they pay is “fair.”
Even a majority of those who support the “tea party” movement, a group whose very name suggests deep anger over taxation, believe that what they had to pay is fair. But enough voters buy into the “all taxes are evil” idea and care about little else that they can sway elections.
Since 65 percent of the petroleum used in this country is imported, making energy more expensive while supporting the infrastructure that transportation requires makes sense. A gas tax does not require a new government bureaucracy or a rapacious corporate entity. And it would not cause more energy to be wasted by the people waiting in lines to pay tolls.
Pennsylvania’s problem with funding roads is not unique to the state or only a problem of transportation. A whole host of government services, including the public education system that is crucial to American competitiveness in today’s global economy, are being slowly starved.
Our nation’s decline is not assured. But to get it back on track, Americans must be willing to show a greater appreciation for the things government rightly does on our behalf and have an honest discussion about how to pay for them.
Dennis Jett, a former US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State’s School of International Affairs. His most recent book is “Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad.”