One year ago, gas prices in my state of Mississippi averaged $1.51 per gallon. In my town this week, $1.91, and in recent weeks as high as $2.09.
Anywhere from 40 cents to 60 cents a gallon increase in the course of a year, and yet no consumer outrage on Facebook/Twitter, no slams in the media about obscene profits and greedy gouging by oil companies.
Wide fluctuations in gas prices have become so much the norm that we’re all resigned to it. We just sigh and pay.
Yet, when there’s the slightest suggestion that a state legislature, or the federal government, enact a few cents increase in the gas tax to pay for maintenance and upgrades to a road/bridge system that is in such disrepair it costs the average motorist hundreds of dollars per year in extra vehicle wear/tear and repairs, it’s grab the pitchforks, man the barricades, over our dead bodies!
In Mississippi, highways are in horrible condition, nearly a thousand bridges are so badly deteriorated they need to be replaced. Many main, heavily-traveled highways are teeth-rattling experiences.
Today’s vehicles are more fuel-efficient, and even though people are driving more miles per year, the money generated by the gasoline tax is less and less. The Federal Highway Fund, continually teetering on bankruptcy, funnels fewer dollars to the states for construction and maintenance. And the roads/bridges infrastructure just gets worse and worse.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its last quadrennial report, gave Mississippi’s road system a grade of D; Arkansas and Louisiana got a similar grade; in the Mid-South only Tennessee had a passing grade of C-plus.
Thirty years ago, the Mississippi legislature approved a gas tax increase to fund a network of 4-lane highways across the state. Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, then in the legislature, recalls that at the same time “we failed to provide for maintaining this multi-billion dollar investment, which has led to the crumbling of the state’s roads and bridges … most noticeable along rural routes, the very areas we set out 30 years ago to help.”
But attempts to boost the state gasoline tax — one of the lowest in the nation, last increased in 1987 — have been summarily shot down by lawmakers, despite the urging of the Mississippi Economic Council and other organizations that point to the increasing costs of transporting goods and crops on the state’s roads.
The MEC, which functions as the state chamber of commerce, has advocated for an additional $375 million a year for highways and bridges, with the bulk to be generated by higher fuel taxes or additional taxes on vehicle licenses.
Opponents say Mississippians are taxed enough and that spending should be cut elsewhere to pay for roads/bridges. Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn said many House members want more details about the condition of highways and bridges before voting on the matter. Geez, all they gotta do is get out and drive 100 miles in any direction from the state capitol to experience the problem up close and personal.
The Department of Transportation says more than one-third of the state’s highways need to be repaired or replaced and 900 bridges need to be rebuilt. There is an $8 billion backlog of infrastructure needs, and the situation worsens each year nothing is done.
A five cent gas tax increase is among the suggestions most heard. Will it, or any increase, pass this year? Or will the legislature once again kick the can down the road?
(As a P.S., after this was written, the chairman of the Mississippi House Ways and Means Committee said he would not bring to a vote a measure that could have increased taxes on gasoline and cigarettes. So, looks like the can will indeed get another kick…)