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Benjamin Spillman

Study suggests more taxes for road upgrades

17 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Taxes or traffic. It's that simple.

If Americans don't pony up more of the former, they better get used to more of the latter.

That's according to authors of a massive report on the state of the nation's roads, rails and ports.

The bad news is the country's infrastructure has deteriorated so much it will take decades spending $225 billion annually to restore conditions to Eisenhower-era service levels.

The good news? Although the country appears to lack politicians brave enough to pay for new roads it has plenty of motivation abroad. Other countries are pouring trillions of dollars into their own transportation systems in an effort to knock America off its perch as the world's top economy.

"You can't have a robust economy without a robust transportation network. That's why the Chinese are investing. That's why the Indians are investing," said Jack Schenendorf, a member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. "Our transportation system, as it breaks down, will break down our economy."

The threat crumbling infrastructure poses to the national and local economies was a hot topic in Las Vegas last week as it hosted one of the biggest construction industry gatherings in the world.

About 140,000 people, nearly 20 percent of them international visitors, were in Southern Nevada for the five-day ConExpo-Con/Agg show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The show ended Saturday.

Although industry leaders tend to sympathize with the Republican Party's anti-tax rhetoric, speakers from the road commission said the nation is so far behind when it comes to transportation more taxes may be critical to catching up.

In short, the commission included a 25-cent to 41-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax, spread out over several years, among recommendations in the report, which members hope Congress will consider before it votes on the next big transportation bill in 2009.

"This thing is going to take courage," said Tom Skancke, president of The Skancke Co., a Las Vegas transportation consultant.

Skancke, who helped craft the report, said a typical driver spends $330 annually fixing car damage from bad roads. He also said reducing congestion saves people time, another valuable commodity, and is a cost-effective way to reduce pollution from idling traffic.

"People complain about a 5-cent gas tax; it just doesn't make logical sense," he said.

The report received mixed reviews since its release in January.

It was praised for being a thorough, realistic evaluation of the nation's infrastructure.

But the tax proposal could undermine the commission's work, which focuses not on taxes but on adopting a consistent national transportation mission to replace the existing piecemeal approach that relies on earmarks, interjurisdictional competition and redundant paperwork.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters refused to even sign the commission's report because of the tax suggestion. Two other commissioners also rejected the findings, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Members of Nevada's congressional delegation who responded to requests to comment on the report all criticized the idea of raising taxes to pay for road upgrades.

"Doubling the gas tax is an old solution to a serious and growing problem facing our nation, especially Nevada," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. "We should be exploring public-private partnerships and voluntary tolling on new lanes while also streamlining cumbersome and duplicative environmental red tape."

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas, said the high cost of oil is already an economic burden and shouldn't be worsened by a higher fuel tax.

"We are already paying record prices at the pump and adding to this expense through increased taxes will impact the finances of families and businesses," Berkley said.

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Las Vegas, said he "cannot support additional taxes on consumers."

Commission members are aware some of their findings are controversial.

David Semerad, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, said legislators in his state overrode a governor's veto of a bill calling for more infrastructure funding only after a Minneapolis bridge collapsed Aug. 1, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

"I don't know we would have gotten a veto override had it not been for the terrible tragedy," Semerad said. "We felt we could not afford another bridge collapse or tragic event of some kind."

He added anti-tax groups continue to attack Republican politicians who supported the override.

"Most of us are still good Republicans. None of us like to run to the capitol and raise taxes," Semerad said. "We felt what we did was prudent and good business."