When Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar began her presidential campaign, she demonstrated at the outset that she had her priorities in better order than many of the two dozen wannabes with whom she is competing for the Democratic nomination.
She began by proposing to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure. In typical Washington fashion, she asked for more than she would ever possibly get. She defined “infrastructure” to include not only crumbling roads, highways and bridges, but also schools, airports, water systems, internet access, public transit and energy systems. That’s too broad a scope, but if she could rebuild the entire Interstate Highway system for the estimated $521 billion needed, it would be a huge achievement.
Regardless, the argument to fix our roads, highways and bridges should be compelling. “Medicare for All” or “Free college for everyone” are great marketing slogans, but why would anyone think the feds can make health care or education better when they can’t even keep the roads drivable?
Over the past few years, I’ve traveled the Interstate Highway System through 25 states on four cross-country trips, one to Dallas on I-35, two to Portland, Ore., on I-80, I-90 and I-94, and two weeks ago to Boston, mostly on I-90 and I-94. The Interstate Highway System consists of 48,191 miles. Admittedly, I’ve only traveled about 15-20 percent of those miles, but if you are planning a cross-country trip this summer, here’s what I found:
• Avoid Oklahoma. Taking states as a whole, this was the worst. I-35 was in terrible shape from top to bottom. We’re talking wheel-realigning jolts every 20 yards from Kansas to Texas.
• Also show mercy on your vehicle by avoiding I-90 from Erie, Pa., to Buffalo, N.Y. The road is in such poor condition, that a sign was erected that said, “Drive slowly. Rough road.” And in New York, this was on a toll road. The governor, legislative leaders, U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillenbrand, and western New York congressmen Chris Collins, Tom Reed and Brian Higgins have no shame if they continue collecting money for a section of road that would challenge one of Patton’s tanks.
• The third worst section of road is closer to home — I-94 between I-694 and the Wisconsin border on the eastern edge of the Twin Cities. Strap your chiropractor to the top of the car because you’re going to need him/her after traveling that stretch.
• Overall, the state whose Interstate miles are in the best shape is Wisconsin. All of the marginal sections were under repair as we drove through. It’s nice to beat the Packers or Badgers, but we are losing the transportation game to our eastern neighbors.
• At all costs, avoid driving on I-90/94 through downtown Chicago. Use I-294 to I-80 and then over to I-90 in Indiana. We missed a turn and got caught in a 20,000-car snarl in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Illinois drivers are the rudest that we have encountered anywhere. There’s no taking turns when merging lanes. It’s bluff or be bluffed. Plus, in neighboring states, when someone flew by at 90 mph, it was usually an Illinois driver.
• Indiana is schizophrenic. The Indiana East-West Toll Road is in good shape from the Illinois line to South Bend, home of the University of Notre Dame. From there to the Ohio border it’s terrible. I’d give Indiana a C grade overall, with a B to the west and a D to the east.
• A visit to Yellowstone would be easier on the family vehicle than a visit to D.C., in spite of the Rocky Mountains. Highways out west are in better shape than out east.
Driving that many miles, one has time to think about possible solutions. I came up with one idea: Put a floor under the retail gasoline price that few drivers would complain about, say $2.40. Today, gas is in the $2.60-$2.70 range. However, in recent years, it has fallen below $2.00 a couple of times.
We all currently pay 18.5 cents/gallon in federal tax and 28.5 cents/gallon in state tax. A move by DFLers to increase the state gas tax 20 cents per gallon failed. That doesn’t eliminate the estimated annual funding gap of $885 million cited by the Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan (MnSHIP). I don’t know if it is constitutional, enforceable or implementable, but if a $2.40 floor on the retail price were set, taxes would go unchanged until the next time the pre-tax price drops below $1.93. (Subtract 47 cents in taxes from the retail price to find the pre-tax price.)
Whenever the pre-tax price is below $1.93, keep the retail price at $2.40 and add the difference to the state gas tax. MnDOT may not like it because it would be an uncertain funding source, but when the pre-tax price drops to the $1.50-$1.60 range, huge amounts would be collected to repair our roads. The extra dollars could be put in a reserve account, to be used only when MnDOT gets a project shovel ready. Cap the fund at the $17.7 billion funding deficit we are said to have over the next 20 years, and once the $17.7 billion is raised, sunset the price floor.
Happy trails, everyone.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.