By Teri Jover
After the deadly collapse two months ago of a bridge in Minnesota - a span strikingly like New Jersey's iconic Pulaski Skyway in its construction - the state Department of Transportation found that more than one-third of New Jersey's bridges are either "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete." The price tag to repair or replace them: an estimated $6 billion to $8 billion over the next decade.
Attending to this pressing need will, of necessity, be a high priority for the Corzine administration and the Legislature in the months ahead. And the discussion of how to foot the bill will almost certainly center on the governor's long-awaited "asset monetization" plan to sell or lease state resources, including the New Jersey Turnpike.
There is another, more immediate revenue source that could be tapped to pay for these essential repairs. In the short term, it's stable, easy to collect, and may be passed along to large numbers of out-of-state residents. In the longer term, it may also be an instrument for achieving several societal goals, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting energy independence, and curbing suburban sprawl.
It is, of course, the gasoline tax.
On average, New Jersey has the lowest retail gasoline prices in the United States. This is attributable primarily to the fact that New Jersey last raised its gas tax 19 years ago, and now has the third-lowest levy in the nation at 10.5 cents a gallon; only Alaska and Georgia are lower.
Raising the gas tax would have two direct benefits. First, it would provide immediate funds to repair those crumbling bridges. Second, it would, over time, encourage people to drive less.
To make it both fair and politically feasible, the tax would have to be raised incrementally. In the short term, the demand for gasoline is relatively inelastic. A large, immediate tax hike would place a heavy burden on many consumers, who aren't likely to respond by going out tomorrow and buying hybrid vehicles or moving to a house near a train station. Marginally raising the tax would encourage drivers to do small things to decrease their driving - planning their trips more efficiently, taking care of several errands at once, walking or riding a bike for some short-distance trips.
As time passes and the tax continues to rise, consumers will make more cost-effective purchasing decisions, such as buying more fuel-efficient cars. They'll also look for ways to reduce their dependence on the automobile - walking, riding a bike, carpooling or taking mass transit - as a means of saving money.
In the long term, the higher cost of driving will have an impact on land-use decisions. Businesses will find that a location near a train station or bus stop, rather than a highway intersection, creates more attractive commuting options for their employees. Home buyers will think twice about moving to a town far from their place of employment. Communities will be encouraged to redevelop neighborhoods where residents can walk to the nearest market, restaurant or movie theater, instead of developing sprawling subdivisions where people have no alternative but to drive.
Any increase in the gas tax is bound to be unpopular. No one likes paying higher taxes, especially for a product that most people use every day. The irony is that we already pay a heavy price for our automobile dependency. Congestion, pollution, sprawl, even obesity can be linked directly to policies that favor driving over other means of transportation. An increased gas tax, phased in over time, can help change that equation and, more immediately, get those bridges fixed.