by Eric Halsey
What truckers have known for a long time is becoming increasingly clear to the rest of the country: US roads are in dangerously bad shape.The World Economic Forum has responded by pushing the US from 5th to 16th in the world on its infrastructure rankings. This is particularly true in Texas, where decades of tax averse state administrations have resulted in a terrifying annual gap in what’s needed to maintain, let alone improve, basic infrastructure. What does this mean for the trucking industry? And what’s being done to remedy the situation? We take a deeper look below.
Don’t Just Build, Maintain!
First, how exactly did we get to this point? Taking a step back in time, the US invested heavily in its infrastructure following the Second World War as part of the Eisenhower Highway System. This took decades and billions of dollars to build, but it’s been the backbone of the US economy and transportation network ever since.
In Texas, this resulted in more than 3,000 miles of high quality interstate highways in addition to the second largest state highway system in the country. But highways must be maintained and upgraded once built. Without a new stoplight or overpass to respond to increased usage or new asphalt to fix potholes, roads can quickly become deadly. One small region around Odessa, Texas is demonstrating this with shockingly high death rates.
The oil boom in that region may be doing wonders for the local economy, but that additional economic activity is not being converted into additional revenue for maintaining and improving the local infrastructure, which is buckling under the strain of 60,000 additional residents who have arrived in the past 10 years. The results are sadly predictable: a 157% increase in traffic deaths from 2009 to 2013.
Letting Economic Growth Go to Waste
Texas as a whole has been lucky enough to benefit from higher than average economic growth for the past several years. But the trend in Austin is to stand back and let this growth develop on its own. Whatever you think of the economics of the Perry Administration though, the trucking industry knows that without government investment, that kind of growth can’t continue forever.
The worry then is that Texas is not taking advantage of this period of growth to make the kinds of investments necessary to continue it. What happens if the economy hits another rough spot, just as the state of Texas’ transportation infrastructure reaches a breaking point? This could be a deadly combination for both those on the roads and the economy as a whole.
Inaction Translates to Slashing Budgets
A common way to raise the revenue necessary to maintain road infrastructure throughout the US is through gas taxes. But this poses some problems. As cars have become more fuel efficient and mild inflation has built up over the years, the money collected from these taxes, adjusted for purchasing power, has dropped by more than half from 18 cents a gallon to 7 cents a gallon over the course of the Perry Administration.
Some would like to blame a lack of federal funding, but even that can’t fully make up for the shortfall. So, Texas finds itself in a situation where economic growth is leading to more cars putting greater strains on the roads while the money necessary to maintain those roads has effectively been cut by almost two thirds. While it may be easy to see this as a simple numbers game, it’s important to remember that this problem translates directly into high death rates each and every month. As a result, Texans are demanding action.
Citizens Demanding Solutions
In response to this growing crisis, on November 4th, Texans passed an amendment to divert some $1.7 billion dollars in gas taxes from going into a rainy day fund to directly paying for infrastructure. But this is still an estimated $4 billion short of what is needed.
Ultimately, diverting funds is simply a stopgap, and not a great one at that. What’s needed is to raise gas taxes and registration fees. Texas currently has no income tax and one of the lowest sets of transportation fees in the country. In this atmosphere of economic growth, it’s not unreasonable to see some mild increases designed to specifically put money into safer roads.
As it stands, lawmakers are simply waiting for the situation to develop into a more serious crisis, one which would allow them to finally act and overcome political pressure not to raise taxes or fees at all. But for families who have already lost loved ones and for truckers who worry a little more every time they drive through the Lone Star State, simply waiting for things to get worse is unacceptable.
What do you think about the state of Texas roads and the politics surrounding the issue? Let us know in the comments section.
Eric Halsey is a historian by training and disposition who’s been interested in US small businesses since working at the House Committee on Small Business in 2006. Coming from a family with a history of working on industry policy, he has a particular interest in the Surety Bonding and Freight Industries and Professional Certification; he loves sharing his knowledge of the industry for JW Surety Bonds.