Monday, January 14, 2008


Fuel Taxes and Road Maintenance

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t — that’s the Catch-22 situation surrounding fuel taxes and road maintenance/construction. I believe I first pointed out the relationship in this post.

In a few days the new session of Japan’s Diet (parliament) will begin, and a major topic of debate has already been decided: What to do about the gasoline tax. One side in the debate claims that the tax is needed to finance road construction and maintenance (true), while the other insists that the tax must be lowered or eliminated to reduce the cost of fuel and keep vehicles on the road (also true).

What’s more, because the materials and energy for road construction and maintenance are fossil fuel-based, it makes the problem even more serious for modern economies, as illustrated here. How this will play out is pretty easy to predict, to an extent. Many roads and bridges will simply fall into disrepair, and movement will be much more restricted in the future. Instead of counting on having the same degree of mobility in the future, now is the time to redesign societies and economies on a much more localized scale.

People think that if we figure out other ways to propel our vehicles — biofuels, electricity, air, or what have you — our transportation problems are solved. Sorry to say, it just isn’t so. You also need to factor in the energy needed to obtain the raw materials for making vehicles, manufacture them, and transport them to dealers; the energy to build, maintain, and tool automobile assembly plants; and the energy and materials needed to build and maintain roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, the transportation energy debate is focusing almost exclusively on the energy source to propel vehicles. There seems to be no realization that without well-maintained infrastructure for vehicle manufacturing and transportation, having fuel for your car means nothing.

Addendum: Winter and snow remind me that another significant road-maintenance expense is plowing and salting. It’s easy to find news stories about local governments wheezing under the heavy financial burden imposed by these tasks.

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