One thing very few Americans oppose is improving our roads and bridges. We all use them. Even those without cars rely on them to bring us food, energy, and services like medical transportation. The reason “roads and bridges” are so often highlighted when a new tax and spend bill is proposed before becoming law is that if you opposite improving “roads and bridges” you come off sounding like a crackpot. But what if the money collected wasn’t being spent on the “roads and bridges,” but instead spent on other things that you may not support having an added tax for?
A recent bridge collapse in Pennsylvania is newsworthy for many reasons. Just one of the reasons is that a few years before the bridge collapsed, an auditor looking over how the money collected from vehicle fuel taxes was being spent told the world that the state wasn't using the money for “roads and bridges.” Like the one that would soon collapse. The state auditor's report got a bit of play on the local news, but the state ignored its bridges and went on spending as it felt it wished, rather than as it said it would.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale told WHYY, a Philadelphia-based public radio station, at the time of the audit’s release. "You're going to have this high gas tax, but it's going to go to fund roads and bridges. And now when they find out it's not happening, I think that gets people upset."
The timing of the collapse was perfect, if we may say so. Had the audit found the state was siphoning off the “road and bridges” money the day of the collapse, the state would have said, “Oh, we will stop that, but it would not have prevented this failure.” But the timeline shows the state had years to stop the practice after it came to light, and to instead simply do what was promised and fix the bridges in need of repair using money it collected for exactly that purpose.
Pennsylvania has one of the highest fuel taxes in the nation. The state of Pennsylvania charges a tax of 58.7 cents per gallon, roughly double what Massachusetts taxpayers opt to tax themselves. That’s on top of the 18.7 federal gas tax. That adds up to 77.1 cents per gallon in Pennsylvania.
We particularly liked the rebuttal from the State of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh Local reports that the Governor’s Office disputes the former Auditor General’s claim the gas tax money could have gone to fix the Fern Hollow Bridge. The media group reported that the governor’s office says those funds would be designated for state bridges and Fern Hollow is owned by the city of Pittsburgh. So, the upshot is that the state would rather let a bridge collapse than provide money from its state taxpayers to fix a bridge located in the state. In the end, this ridiculous way of thinking prevailed and Pennsylvania didn't pay to replace the bridge. Instead, the money came from federal funding. Thus, protecting the long-standing Pennsylvania practice of collecting money for “roads and bridges” and then spending it on other things.
Pennsylvania isn't alone in siphoning off money collected from vehicle full taxes for pet projects unrelated to "roads and bridges." Massachusetts, for example, uses some of its revenue to fund its Inland Fish and Game program, which of course, has its own specific tax revenue stream from fish and game licensing, all of this outside of the state's income, property, and sales taxes. Other states routinely use the "roads and bridges" money for things like education, tourism, general administration, and wildlife programs. The biggest draw-offs from these funds tend to be rail and mass transit projects, which of course have their own revenue streams. Often multiple revenue streams. Many states use more than 20% of the funds collected from fuel taxes for things other than "roads and bridges." According to an articvel by Reason, New York tops the list with a whopping 37.5% of its fuel taxes going to things other than "roads and bridges."
How do you feel about being told that money would be spent one way, and then not spent that way? Do you feel that fuel taxes should simply be put into the general fund? If so, should the general fund then also be responsible for maintaining roads and bridges? Tell us your thoughts on the tax and spend shell game in the comments section below.
Image of money by John Goreham
John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. John's interest in EVs goes back to 1990 when he designed the thermal control system for an EV battery as part of an academic team. After earning his mechanical engineering degree, John completed a marketing program at Northeastern University and worked with automotive component manufacturers, in the semiconductor industry, and in biotech. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American news outlets and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on TikTok @ToknCars, on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin
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