Like most Long Islanders, I spend a fair amount of time driving on our local highways. Most of them were built long ago, some going back to the Depression era, others to the post-World War II boom. Almost all of these roads are in a state of disrepair, some in far worse condition than others.
Potholes abound, and dodging them is a daily challenge for drivers. In the past few years, I’ve hit holes so large that my car’s wheels and tires were destroyed. In one case the damage was severe enough that the car had to be towed from the scene. I’m sure I’m not alone. Maybe that’s happened to you too.
The lack of attention to our infrastructure is traceable to one thing: money. Fixing our decrepit roads and bridges will require huge expenditures. We shouldn’t just accept our fate as we bump along on broken highways. We should fix them, but there are a couple things we need to do, and we should summon the gumption to do them.
Like everyone else, I prefer low taxes. I don’t like New York’s high state and local taxes, especially our sky-high property taxes. But like many of you read, I stay because I love New York. It’s my lifelong home, and my family roots and branches are here.
So I’d much rather spend my money on maintaining and repairing our roads than on fixing blown tires and destroyed wheels. Right now, the price of gas nationwide is well below earlier highs. And federal gas taxes — which are held in a highway trust fund dedicated to funding highway repairs — haven’t been raised since 1993.
It shouldn’t take profiles in courage for our politicians to bite the bullet and raise gas taxes to cover the cost of these highway repairs. Yes, gas taxes, like all taxes, are a pain, but they’re essentially a “use tax” tied directly to the benefit of better, safer roads and bridges. So why is it so hard for our elected officials to raise them? As the cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz” admitted: courage.
I faced this same dilemma as a senator. Ronald Reagan — yes, the ol’ Gipper — asked Congress to raise federal gas taxes a nickel a gallon in 1981. Like most members of Congress, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but a majority of us hammered out an agreement that four of those five cents would go to road repairs, and one cent a gallon to mass transit.
Back then, a penny of the gas tax raised about a billion dollars per year. So the tax raised $4 billion a year for highway repair, and $1 billion for mass transit. That proved to be a double boon to New York, as we got a fair share of the highway repair money and, um, a lion’s share of the mass transit repair money. It helped fix our roads, and it did wonders to rejuvenate New York’s decrepit, dirty, graffiti-stained subways that were the bane of 1960s, ’70s and ’80s New York.
But to paraphrase the Gipper’s famous query, are your roads better off today than they were four decades ago? The honest answer is no. Tacking a few cents on to today’s low gas prices makes perfect sense. America today produces enough domestic oil and gas to ensure our energy independence and stable gas prices. Even the recent turmoil in the Middle East hasn’t spiked energy prices here thanks to this freedom from foreign oil.
But if Washington can summon up a bit more courage, there’s even more that can be done to rebuild America’s roads and bridges. Remember when leaders of both political parties were touting a grand plan of infrastructure funding? The idea was to dedicate some of the tax dollars being repatriated under the 2017 tax reforms to infrastructure programs. Add those tax funds to some creative “public-private partnerships” and now we’re talking real money: a trillion dollars or more for roads, bridges, airports, mass transit, etc.
All of this could be a lifesaver for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has outlined an ambitious $50 billion plan to refurbish our mass transit infrastructure, including the Long Island Rail Road. And it could help New York grow our economy to keep our businesses and people here.
All that’s needed is for our politicians to step up and do these things that require just that little bit of political courage.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.