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The Courier-Journal: A Nation of Potholes

By Ray LaHood


If Halloween is days away, winter must be lurking right around the corner. Once the temperature goes below freezing at night and then warms up when the sun is out, the “freeze-thaw cycle” begins to create potholes and worsen road conditions. This is not just a phenomenon in Louisville – winter and terrible road conditions are a problem in almost every community across the country. The nation is one big pothole. And it is costing you more money than you probably realize.

Driving on bad roads costs the average driver in Kentucky $339 per year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs. If dodging the potholes isn’t bad enough, consider the time that the average driver here in Louisville wastes sitting in traffic each year – 21 days. That is time not spent going to your child’s soccer game or having dinner with your best friend.

And every year, more time is wasted and the cost of driving on those bad roads goes up.

One cost that has not changed in the past 22 years is the 18.4 cent per gallon federal gas tax. In inflation adjusted terms, the gas tax has lost more than a third of its purchasing power and is worth only 11.5 cents today. This is important because the gas tax is the primary source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the nation’s roads and bridges.

No one likes to pay taxes. But the federal gas taxes you pay each time you fill your tank go directly to repair and modernize roads and bridges. It is a true user fee. And the problem with the gas tax never increasing is that the cost of maintaining roads and bridges has increased, just like the cost of everything else has increased, over the past 22 years.

But the Highway Trust Fund, a once reliable source of funding, is in grave danger of drying up if Congress does not act on a long-term transportation bill in the coming weeks.

Since the gas tax was last increased in 1993, cars have become much more fuel efficient, and hybrids and electric vehicles that use little or no gas are on the rise. Between more fuel efficient cars and a gas tax that has lost a third of its purchasing power, the Highway Trust Fund is in trouble.

Kentucky, like most other states, cannot afford to go without federal transportation dollars for maintaining and modernizing its roads, bridges and transit systems. This state depends on federal funding for more than 64 percent of its transportation budget. And with the state’s infrastructure graded a “C” by the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2011 Report Card on Kentucky’s Infrastructure, the Commonwealth can ill afford to lose these precious dollars.

To prevent the Highway Trust Fund from going bankrupt, Congress must inject it with new revenue. Failure to do so would curtail critical construction projects and would kill tens of thousands of middle-class construction jobs.

That would be terrible for our economy, which is just getting back on its feet. And it would have direct consequences here in Kentucky, as the state could lose $860 million in federal funds and thousands of jobs across the state.

The years of kicking the can down the pothole-filled road must end. That is why I am participating in a policy forum here in Louisville this week to discuss how a long-term plan of smart infrastructure investments will grow the economy and enhance the nation’s economic competitiveness. The forum, co-hosted by Building America’s Future, the Greater Louisville Chamber of Commerce, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, couldn’t come at a better time as Congress must act in the coming weeks to rescue the federal Highway Trust Fund from bankruptcy.

The time is now for decisive action and real solutions. The economic prosperity of our nation and that of Kentucky depends upon it.

Ray LaHood is the former Secretary of the Department of Transportation and a co-chair of Building America’s Future, a bipartisan group of former and current elected officials dedicated to bringing about a new era of U.S. investment in infrastructure that enhances our nation's prosperity and quality of life.

Source: The Courier-Journal