Wilmington News Journal writes an Opinion: Our hatred of taxes, demands for services conflict.
As Delaware Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan notes, no community leader will deny the state has a funding problem for its roadways. However, as those same community leaders will acknowledge, there is practically no way we are going to solve that problem. Americans in general, and Delawareans in particular, do not like paying taxes. They never did. In recent years the hostility to taxes are grown. The anti-tax movement remains strong and any proposed tax on gasoline makes it even stronger.
The result is, as Secretary Cohan told legislative budget writers last week, $600 million worth of highway projects will be on hold for years. That sounds reasonable, until the missing roadwork affects them. Then it gets personal. The demand for services will go up. However, there still will not be tax increases.
David Levinson, a professor of transportation studies at the University of Minnesota, explains it this way: “Roads are governed by elected officials, who believe they are re-elected when they keep taxes down and are sometimes punished when they raise taxes.” Voters do not trust transportation departments, Professor Levinson says, and they are not always wrong.
Congress is in the same shape as the Delaware General Assembly. It is supposed to fix the federal highway trust fund. However, it seems highly reluctant to do so if it adds anything to the taxpayers’ gasoline bill. Economists believe a way can be found so that the private cost of driving a car comes close to the actual public cost. Despite what we pay at the pump or for tolls or fees, the cost of using the roads and polluting the air is much higher. Economists, both right and left, argue this should be evened out.
Economists, however, do not run for re-election.
The largest source of revenue for the road projects are the tolls on I-95 and Del. 1. This makes sense and follows the same no-tax logic of gasoline levies. The Del. 1 toll is higher on the weekend. The drivers paying that extra money are usually driving for pleasure, not work. The extra cash goes down more easily.
The I-95 tolls is better yet from this point of view. It is a border tax, if you will. The bulk of it is paid by people driving through Delaware. They are highly unlikely to protest a high toll by voting against Delaware incumbents. Our trouble is that we do not have more borders that strangers want to cross.
Every driver has welcomed the current lower price of gasoline. Tax increase suggestions from infrastructure advocates have been shouted down, both by the diehard anti-tax groups and the average motorist who is enjoying the relief. Therefore, the impasse continues. Cars will become even more efficient on gasoline and thus lower the amount of tax coming in. Postponed maintenance will grow more costly and wear and tear on the roads will get worse.
Somewhere along the line, something will have to give. Even re-election wary politicians will be forced to agree.
Delaware of course has some of the highest share of revenue from tolls in the US due to its strategic position of owning a short turnpike between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, of being able to tax foreigners living abroad. Yet even they face the same issue as other states as to how to raise revenue.