Tim Kuzdrowski / Flickr

Despite what Standard & Poor's might suggest.

Standard & Poor's, that enabler of the subprime mortgage crisis, has now offered its standard poor assessment of the U.S. infrastructure crisis. In a new report, S&P submits that declining driving trends among Millennials are having a “profound effect” on America’s crumbling roads and bridges. Since snake people aren’t driving, according to this argument, they also aren’t contributing gas taxes to the Highway Trust Fund that pays for infrastructure maintenance.

Via the report:

This drop in funds available to construct and repair the country's infrastructure could, in Standard & Poor's Ratings Services' view, weigh on growth prospects for U.S. GDP, as well as states' economies, and, in some cases, where states and municipalities choose to replace the lost federal funds with locally derived revenues, could hurt credit quality.

The biggest problem with this outlook is that it misunderstands the very function of the gas tax. Simply put, fuel fees are a way to charge drivers for the wear and tear they inflict on interstates and major roads. If you aren’t driving on these roads, you aren’t causing the damage the gas tax is meant to cover. Except in the sense that Millennials are responsible for everything bad in this world, blaming them for poor roads isn’t quite fair.

There’s also the fact that most Millennials do, in fact, drive. While young people in big cities often rely on public transportation or bikes to get around, about four in five people aged 16 to 30 make most of their trips by car. Personal tastes may indeed influence Millennial driving patterns and could potentially alter their lifelong travel habits. But this mindset is arguably marginal, with larger forces like gas prices and job status playing a substantial role in car use—and it’s certainly beside the larger point, which is that metro areas must move beyond car-based planning regardless of one sub-population’s shifting preferences.

What’s really going on here—and which, to be fair, the S&P report does acknowledge once you get past the misleading title—is that America’s gas tax is busted. The federal fee hasn’t been raised in decades and lacks the flexibility of a per-mile driving charge to capture not only infrastructure damage, but also pollution and congestion costs. Gas tax specifics notwithstanding, too much money from the Highway Trust Fund is devoted to building new roads instead of maintaining old ones, creating a cycle of higher costs in the future.

If there’s a real lesson to be learned from the fact that some young people (and others) are driving less, it’s that there’s no need to build as many roads as we have in the past.

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