America’s aging roads and bridges are crumbling, with a reported 40% of all the bridges in the country in urgent need of repair according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Since President Eisenhower began the Interstate Highway System in the 50’s, the country’s priority has always been building new roads, rather than repairing the ones we already have, and that methodology is catching up with us.

That pattern of neglect is expensive. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), repairing roads that have deteriorated costs 14 times as much as maintaining a road properly in the first place. We need to spend $43 billion a year for 20 years just to repair the roads that are currently in poor condition and keep them properly maintained, according to a recent report from Smart Growth America.

No one really questions that it is going to cost a lot of money to upgrade our roadways and bridges over the next two decades. The only question is, who is going to pay for it and how?

Historically, roads have been paid for by gasoline taxes. But Americans are using less gasoline these days thanks to more efficient cars, or in the case of EVs, no gas taxes at all. Gone is the time when your father’s Oldsmobile got 12 mpg, and that was considered “pretty good”. Concerns about pollution and climate change have spurred the government to raise fuel economy standards dramatically, which has had the added effect of reducing gas tax revenue.

Soon, every manufacturer selling cars in the United States will have to contribute to a company-wide average fuel economy rating of 54.5 mpg. Meeting that standard has pushed the car makers to offer more and more hybrid, plug in hybrid, electric and fuel cell vehicles, all of which use much less gasoline, or no gasoline at all.

So, should the people who drive such cars be exempt from the cost of maintaining our roads? Of course not. But how to spread that burden fairly is a vexing problem. Here are the proposals currently on the table:

  1. Impose an annual surcharge on the registration fees for hybrid or electric vehicles.
  2. Charge all drivers per miles actually driven.
  3. Add tolls to more roads.

The first option is being considered in Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe. Critics complain that adding the same flat fee to a hybrid as an electric car is unfair, because the hybrid uses some gas while the electric uses none. They want a multi-tiered system that charges different rates for different vehicles, a system that make sense, but could also create an administrative nightmare.

Speaking of administrative nightmares, Oregon has convinced 5000 of its citizens to voluntarily report their actual mileage driven to the DMV and pay a 1.5 cent per mile tax, calculated using an on-board GPS device. That might work for a bunch of treehuggers, but hardly seems practical for the general public. Another proposal is to have the cars talk to the DMV electronically via a wireless dongle plugged into the OBD-II port. Some people actually do this already to get lower insurance premiums, but in a world where people have real concerns about data collection by the NSA, the CIA and the FBI, it seems unlikely such a plan would gain widespread acceptance. Do you really want your government knowing where you are and how fast you’re driving at all times?

That leaves the third option, creating additional tolls would charge people for their actual usage of the roads. With the advent of EZ Pass and FastLane technology, collecting tolls wouldn’t necessarily create massive delays on the roads, and raising revenue without tracking people’s every movement seems like a sensible approach. But it would also necessitate building the tolls themselves, and nobody is a fan of tolls.

In preparing this story, I discussed the various options with my wife over dinner last night. I wanted to get feedback from someone whose opinion I trust, and who is not a certified car nut like me. After talking out the pluses and minuses of each system, she decided the annual surcharge on registration fees was the best approach. No messy reporting requirements. No sharing of personal data with governments. No new toll collecting infrastructure. It’s clean, it’s efficient and it’s painless. Pay once a year and forget it. I tend to agree.

What do you think? Share your thoughts on this subject with us and with others in the comments section below.

Source: The Boston Globe