By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
When Alabama lawmakers consider raising the state’s gasoline tax to pay for improved roads and bridges this legislative session, they’ll be making a choice about what kind of infrastructure future the state needs and can afford.
But they won’t be blindly throwing darts at a dartboard, hoping to hit the right number.
Those involved with developing the legislation say they are relying heavily on data provided by state university researchers showing the various scenarios for the future of transportation infrastructure at different gas tax levels as well as the latest structural engineering technology for cost savings.
“After the 2017 session when we were unsuccessful getting infrastructure done, I thought let’s go ahead and get our state research institutions involved,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.
“We’ve got some of the best transportation programs in the country right here at Auburn and Alabama, so we called and asked them to help us study the issue of infrastructure.”
The result has been carefully-compiled reports from Auburn University and The University of Alabama researchers that will help state leadership and the Alabama Department of Transportation decide what level of gas tax increase to pursue and know what strategies are needed for taxpayers to get the best bang for their buck.
Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to make an infrastructure plan announcement this week.
Population vs. Purchasing Power
At the Alabama Transportation Institute at The University of Alabama, Dr. Shashi Nambisan leads a team of researchers who analyzed the range of issues that led to the state struggling to pay for adequate roads and bridges under current gas tax revenues. Their report, Addressing Alabama’s Infrastructure: Roads and Bridges, shows that Alabama’s road construction and maintenance has not kept up with population growth and vehicle congestion.
“Our revenues have been relatively flat, but our population has grown and our vehicle miles travelled has grown,” Nambisan told the Alabama Daily News during a recent visit to the Institute.
His research shows that, between 1990 and 2015, Alabama’s population grew by 20 percent while the total vehicle miles travelled on state roads grew by 57 percent. Yet, the number of new lane miles built for travelers to use grew by only 14 percent.
With more cars on the road driving more miles, it would stand to reason that gas tax revenues would increase at a similar rate. But one reason they haven’t is what Nambisan calls a good problem to have: better fuel efficiency.
In 1980, vehicles only got an average of 15 miles per gallon of gasoline, whereas today’s more efficient vehicles average 22 miles per gallon. That amounts to fewer fill-ups per miles travelled.
And because the state taxes gasoline on a per-gallon basis, and not per-dollar like sales tax, it also amounts to less revenue generated per miles travelled.
“A typical car today drives about 12,000 miles a year. At 22 miles a gallon, we only need about 550 gallons of fuel today, compared to 850 gallons a year in 1980,” Nambisan said. “So, instead of paying 18 cents on 850 gallons, we are paying 18 cents on 550 gallons.
“For all of us consumers, that’s a good thing. But what does that do to the funds that go to maintain our roads and bridges?”
Doing the math, the average driver currently pays about $99 in fuel taxes each year. If the gas tax is a user fee for roads, then users are paying less and using more as time passes.
Another factor squeezing state revenues is the decline of purchasing power. Inflation and the rising costs of materials like asphalt, concrete and steel mean the dollars just don’t go as far as they used to, the report concludes.
Alabama’s tax on gasoline is 18 cents per gallon, last raised in 1992 when lawmakers tacked on five cents. Nambisan’s report concludes that the purchasing power of that 18 cents has been eroded to effectively 11 cents or less, negating the last gas tax increase completely.
“It’s been a consistent drop over time,” said Dr. Steven Polunsky, Director of the Alabama Transportation Policy Research Center, pointing to a graph showing the how the value of the state’s 18-cent gas tax has eroded with inflation.
“At this point, in 2007, we actually are under water. We’ve negated the increase. Not only have we completely lost the purchasing power, we’re now in the red.
“So the brave and bold action the Legislature took in 1992 is gone.”
As state resources lag behind the demand for more infrastructure, the result is increased traffic congestion. Nambisan and his researchers studied how traffic delays are impacting the state as a whole, as well as the various metropolitan areas.
Alabama commuters spend an average of 19 hours delayed in traffic each year. In Birmingham, that number is as high as 35 hours – nearly a full time work week.
Combing the data, researchers found that these delays cost consumers an average of $450 a year in increased fuel costs and other expenses. Overall, they cost the Alabama economy $2.3 billion.
Another trend impacting congestion is the number vehicles on the road. In 2015, Alabama was home to about 5.5 million registered vehicles, up from about 3.8 million in 1990. The Alabama Transportation Institute projects registrations will grow to 6.3 million by 2040, a 24 percent increase – faster than the growth of the population. Vehicle miles travelled is also expected to far outpace the road construction at 22 percent by 2040.
“Roads and bridges have a lifespan,” said Justice Smyth, Outreach Director for the Institute. “The longer that they’re around and the more wear on them, the more maintenance they are going to need.
“So they’re not even keeping up with population, much less vehicle miles traveled. So that disparity contributes a great deal to the congestion issues we have,”
So, what do researchers say it would take for the state to produce the revenue needed to fix these problems?
The short answer is, depending on the level of investment, between $600 and $800 million each year. But, it’s not that simple.
Instead of prescribing how much of a gasoline tax increase lawmakers should pursue, researchers instead developed a series of scenarios that show what benefits and costs at different levels of investment. Alabama Transportation Institute calculated how each metropolitan area would be impacted by the state implementing an array of different strategies, then compiled them together to distill two basic options for lawmakers: the Optimum Conditions Alternative and the Minimum Costs Alternative.
Estimates show that every cent the gasoline tax is raised would bring in about $31 million in revenue. To achieve the Optimum Conditions Alternative, the state would need to raise and invest $800 million annually. That could take a gas tax increase of as much as 25 cents per gallon. To achieve the Minimum Costs Alternative, the state would need to raise and invest $600 million annually. That could take a gas tax increase of as much as 19 cents per gallon.
No matter what number legislative leaders arrive at, another increase in the gas tax would be subject to the same economic factors that caused the loss of purchasing power during the last 25 years. That’s why policymakers have explored indexing, or tethering the gas tax to an economic measure so that the revenue doesn’t lose its value.
“There’s some talk about having a floor or a ceiling in an index so that it doesn’t go up too quickly or fall too quickly,” Smyth said. “That way there’s some predictability for how much money you’ll have in the coffers when you are planning these projects.”
The state could offset the loss of purchasing over time if it links it to the Consumer Price Index or the Construction Cost Index or some combination thereof, Nambisan said.
“That way we don’t have to go back to the Legislature every five years so say, ‘Hey, we lost this, and we need it back,'” he said.
One way the state hopes to stretch taxpayers’ dollar further is through technology advancements that make roads and bridges last longer.
At Auburn University’s Highway Research Center, scientists are developing technology that can extend the life of materials and reduce the need for costly maintenance and replacement.
“Through uses of technologies proven at Auburn like self-consolidating concrete, fiber reinforced polymers and new asphalt pavement mixes, Alabama’s Department of Transportation is able to build and repair roads and bridges so they last longer, carry traffic safely and have overall lower life-cycle costs,” said Dr. Chris Roberts, Dean of the College of Engineering. “In addition to saving money, these innovations reduce traffic congestion caused by lengthy repairs and replacement of our highways.”
In just the last three years, the Center has submitted 22 research reports to the Alabama Department of Transportation on everything from core concrete testing to the structural integrity of pile-lean bridge structures.
Dr. Steve Taylor, Associate Dean for Research at Auburn’s College of Engineering, said the work to produce better materials is only part of an overall approach to help make the state’s highway system more efficiently engineered.
“Our researchers develop contemporary engineering solutions for maintaining Alabama’s roads and bridges,” Taylor said. “The work we do at Auburn has the goal of creating new construction materials, structural components, pavement designs, bridge designs and overall transportation network designs that safely and efficiently carry the traffic to its destination in ways that are the most economical.”
Putting research to use
When the Alabama Legislature gathered in Montgomery in January for its organizational session, legislative leaders took advantage of having members in the same place to share some of the universities’ research.
At a joint meeting of the House and Senate Republican Caucuses, the Alabama Transportation Institute’s report was shared with lawmakers and Dr. Nambisan was on invited to answer questions.
House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said the research made a difference to lawmakers.
“I think the message is pretty clear inside that report,” Ledbetter, who has advocated for road improvements, said. “One of the most important things it showed was how much money people are wasting just sitting in traffic.”
The data on the state’s aging bridges should also be noted, he said.
“Everyday, many of us go over bridges that are over 50 years old.”
Marsh said having academic research as opposed to something generated by an industry that benefits from road and bridge spending makes it impactful.
“It absolutely helps in terms of credibility and accuracy. It helps to be able to give members of the Legislature in both the House and the Senate real information so they can make decisions,” Marsh said.
“Anytime you’re trying to make decisions, you want to make them based on accurate information. I think the universities did a good job of providing that research and answering a lot of questions through the process.
“I think at the end of the day, our members will be very informed when it comes to addressing infrastructure, whether that means a gas tax or anything else.”
The legislature’s regular session begins March 5.
Read the full report Addressing Alabama’s Infrastructure: Roads and Bridges