(Host) Are we getting what we’re paying for with our highway tax dollars? Commentator Allehn Gilbert thinks that’s a fair question.
(Gilbert) For a number of years I’ve followed figures showing how Vermont stacks up against other states in different categories of spending.
The figures are reported in economic journals. They show, on a per capita basis, how much we spend on schools, roads, prisons, and other public endeavors, compared to the average of other states.
The category that usually gets the most attention is schools. It’s often pointed out how much more Vermont spends per pupil than other states – about 25 percent more.
Interestingly, one of the categories that receive far less attention is highway spending. But it deserves special notice — especially now as the state struggles with ballooning highway expenses.
Given the condition of some of the state’s roads, you might think we spend a lot less on roads than other states. In fact, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, the opposite is true. Per capita, Vermont spends between 60 and 80 percent more on roads than the national average. Per capita, we also have many more street and highway workers than other states.
If we’re spending so much, how can our roads be such a mess? The Legislature asked this question during its last session, but came up with few good answers. Instead, the underlying message of legislative discussions was that we may have to spend even more money on our roads. To do that, we may have to raise taxes. Or get more help from the federal government. Or start collecting tolls on some roads.
If schools were found to be costing Vermont taxpayers 60 to 80 percent above the national average, it’s a good bet that there would be howls of protest – and calls for investigations. In the case of roads, what approaches could be used to better understand the mess that we’re in?
The first might be to examine exactly how the money is being spent. A lot of highway work is bid out to private contractors. State Auditor Elizabeth Ready has done an excellent job in reviewing contracts that the Department of Corrections has made; a close look at Agency of Transportation contracts might be similarly fruitful.
Another approach would be to ask more questions of our elected representatives. Just as school board members are responsible for their community’s school budget, legislators are responsible for the state highway budget. Any school board wanting to spend a lot more money on its schools than other towns would be put on the hot seat. We need to do the same with our legislators for roads. How is it that the cost of some highway projects has doubled and nearly tripled without their knowing about it? Are we getting the best deals on paving contracts? Are we trying to do too much? Can we afford to keep meeting transportation needs mainly through highway building?
There are lots of questions, and few good answers. Certainly, though, spending 60 to 80 percent more than other states and getting substandard roads in return begs for a credible explanation.
This is Allen Gilbert.
Allen Gilbert is a writer and parent. He is executive director of a statewide civil liberties organization.