Can they cut the mustard?

Dec. 16, 2002

Perhaps governments at the local, state and federal levels should have a few hot dog sales.

Perhaps governments at the local, state and federal levels should have a few hot dog sales.

During my brief and rather insignificant political career at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where I diligently served as Boomer Hall Council president, there was a time when my regime faced financial ruin. I never did favor our treasurer. He basked in the "I-have-no-direction-in-life-so-I'll-just-skate-along" attitude by showing up late for meetings with a careless glaze in his eyes. I thought he was bureaucratic trash, but the people voted him into office.

It was late in the spring semester when his incompetence threatened to egg our last couple weeks in office. Apparently expenditures were not tracked properly and we were heading straight into a red sea of debt. Out of desperation, it was decided to have a hot dog sale. For a couple of dollars, Boomer Hall residents received two grilled hot dogs and a can of pop. Delivery was free and tips were encouraged. We raised over $200 and used the beefy sum to buy three new vacuums and a Nintendo game system. Yes, this is my presidential triumph. Hardly the work of FDR's New Deal, but I was able to leave university housing with a celebratory FDR-like cigar.

Realistically, raising money in the road and bridge industry cannot be addressed with some simple squirts of a mustard bottle. According to a special report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the November elections showed a nation still divided when it comes to dropping some more coin in the construction jar.

There were about 36 measures related to transportation funding on state and local ballots at the Nov. 5 polls.

Almost two-thirds of the money requests asked voters to approve higher county, sales or property taxes to generate more funds for transportation projects. Eleven passed, 11 failed. The most lopsided victory came in Denton, Texas, where over 73% approved the creation of a regional transportation authority to oversee mass transit projects. Voters also were asked to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase to finance a revenue bond to pay for light rail connecting Denton to Dallas.

But not everyone was cutting the celebratory cake. Those in Solano County, Calif., rejected a half-cent sales tax measure to fund transportation programs and projects by almost a 20-point margin. The plan was expected to generate between $800 million to $1 billion over 20 years. In Teller County, Colo., 79.79% smashed a measure which would produce $2.168 million annually for the county road and bridge fund for public road and bridge operations and maintenance through an increase in county taxes.

There were only two calls to increase the gas tax?in Santa Rosa, Fla., and in the state of Washington?and both failed miserably. The public, even if it is a small sampling, was refusing to juice up the highway/bridge spending machine.

Will this tax evasiveness affect those on Capitol Hill? The Nov. 5 elections handed the Republicans the power stick, and one of the top issues surrounding the reauthorization of TEA-21 is a hike in the federal gas tax, which I believe is desperately needed.

But how many Americans really favor such a move? Several Congress newcomers claim they won a seat because of a campaign that included infrastructure improvements. Yet those in Santa Rosa and Washington state have voiced strong opposition. How will their officials really vote when a gas tax increase is on the table? Commuters in Chicago and San Francisco already pay over $1.50 at the pump. How will officials in Illinois and California vote?

Is there any cause for concern here, or will we be able to count on transportation enthusiasts George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Thomas Petri (R-Wis.) to manufacture and sell the necessary legislation?

Job security is never a guarantee, especially if you're a politician. One vote against the viewpoint of your people could have you selling hot dogs on the street.

About The Author: Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges. He can be reached at [email protected].

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