Today, we highlight a complex issue in the news, provide multiple perspectives and present our view on the controversy. Our hope is to start a conversation that better informs all of us, and we invite you to share your insights. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “roads” or tweet to @NewsdayOpinion.
As restrictions brought on by COVID-19 fade and Long Islanders return to their cars for work, school, errands and socializing, people from every perspective and background are sharing one message:
These roads are a disaster!
Barrel-sized potholes command attention with their rim-mangling menace, but flying rocks busting windshields also stoke rage. So do spots that have received patches but are already impassable again. Then there are the seams between lanes of highways, bowling-alley gutters littered with jagged shards of asphalt.
In two of the wealthiest, most highly-taxed counties in the nation, the roads have become a third-world gauntlet.
Gas tax capped
Long Island’s roads are maintained by villages, towns, counties and the state, with a lot of help from the federal government, and many residents don’t know who is responsible for each road. Elected officials and workers at all levels of government say most complaints they hear are for roads they don’t control. Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead even created interactive maps of every road within their borders that tell users who to complain to for each.
Officials can’t agree whether this year is smashing pothole records along with axles. The winter of 2019-2020 was quite mild, with little snow and moderate temperatures. Then COVID kept people off the roads. This winter was certainly tougher, with damaging snow and plowing, and the cycles of freeze and thaw that allow water to damage paving with every cycle.
But the biggest problem is that the federal gas tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, losing 43% of its buying power in that span and bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund. The state gas tax has also been essentially unchanged since 1991 at around 25 cents a gallon, but only 23% of what the state collects in gas taxes is now spent on new road projects, down from 100% some 30 years ago.The rest goes to debt service and other state spending. And counties, towns and villages rely on state and federal funding to care for their own roads, too.
Federal roads funding is down about 20% in the past 15 years, and state funding has been mostly flat or down for years, even as the cost of paving skyrocketed.
The roads are worse because they are being starved of funding, adding years to the repaving cycle. And while the gas tax is unchanged, the cost of paving has tripled, and better fuel economy and the advent of hybrids and electric vehicles mean the average mile driven generates 17% less tax than it did 25 years ago.
No new taxes
Advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, the operation that famously pushes conservative candidates to sign a "no new taxes" pledge, argues that gas tax hikes would encourage federal spending on frivolous projects, increase prices on consumer goods, stifle economic growth and hurt middle-income Americans the most by boosting transportation costs.
But the group has no plan for properly funding our streets and highways.
Not built to last
While New York is last in the nation in per capita allocation of federal road money, no one is getting enough. The nation has at least $1 trillion in road needs, part of about $3.5 trillion the nation’s civil engineers say is overdue to rebuild our infrastructure.
Why can’t we build roads that last longer? Concrete lasts, but when the stretch of the Long Island Expressway in Queens near LeFrak City was rebuilt with concrete, the years of lane closures drove drivers batty. Asphalt is much cheaper, and cures much faster, and New York’s climate and traffic volume is harder on concrete than in places where it is more popular.
Better surfaces made of ground-up tires or other materials and futuristic roadways that are also solar panels are so far mostly just drawing-board dreams.
The problem is money for new asphalt. The solution is more.
New ways to pay
More funding must be collected at the state and federal levels to improve our roads. But the proposed 55 cent per gallon hike in New York and suggested increases in the federal per-gallon tax should be augmented with more workable ideas as we buy fewer gallons. The real damage to roads is done by loaded trucks, which can cause 1,000 times as much wear as cars. Those trucks are so heavy because they are transporting products to be sold for profit, and those profiting ought to be paying for the roads. Smarter ideas include charging by the mile, so owners of electric cars pay taxes for roads, and by weight, rather than just by the gallon.
Long Islanders deserve better roads. Over time, some improvement should come from innovative construction materials and techniques. But right now what’s needed is more money, raised by a state and a nation whose tax collections must catch up with the times, and the need.