Out of Control Policy Blog

Gas taxes and earmarks won't solve our transportation needs

In a recent Arizona Republic article, Congressman Jeff Flake (R, Arizona) breaks down why more of the same old/same old is not going to help us solve our transportation infrastructure needs:

While the "Bridge to Nowhere" was certainly the most famous of these earmarks, it at least resembled a transportation project. The most recent transportation authorization was replete with earmarks for bike paths, hiking trails, visitor centers, museums, beautification work, and other suspect projects that seem even more suspect given the events of the past months.

For example, Minnesota received more than 140 earmarks in the highway bill worth nearly half a billion dollars. According to a recent review, these included nearly $1.6 million for bike trails, more than $1.5 million for streetscaping, and more than $1 million for new visitor centers. With the state's priorities undoubtedly shifting in light of recent events, Minnesota should have the flexibility to use its transportation funds as it needs to rather than on projects such as these.

Obviously, this problem is not limited to Minnesota. Congressional Quarterly recently highlighted that nearly all of the fifty most heavily traveled and structurally deficient bridges are concentrated in Los Angeles and San Francisco. My guess is that California has better uses for transportation dollars than the $5 million dollar earmark for bikeways and trails in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or the $2.3 million dollar earmark for landscaping enhancements for "aesthetic purposes" along the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley. These earmarks are even more egregious when you realize that California, like Arizona, is a "donor state," meaning it receives less than a dollar worth of federal transportation funding for every dollar it pays in federal gas tax.

We can all agree that the Minnesota bridge collapse should serve as a wake-up call. Congress cannot continue to turn a blind eye to pork barrel politics that all too often reward the districts of powerful Members of Congress and tie the hands of state transportation officials. With this in mind, I plan to introduce legislation that will allow states the flexibility to use their transportation dollars as they see fit.

Both President Bush and Secretary Peters have both wisely dismissed calls for raising the gas tax and have called Congress out for squandering much-needed transportation funding on earmarks. The last thing we need is to raise the gas tax, which will simply give Washington politicians even more money to spend on earmarked projects.

My colleague Bob Poole discussed more of the problems with the current highway funding system in his latest Surface Transportation Newsletter:

I fault the current federal highway funding system on two key points. The first is its long tradition of, and recent major uptrend in, allocating money to congress-members' pet projects--rather than to projects that yield the most bang for the buck in addressing real transportation needs. A system that spends lavishly to build bridges to nowhere, while over 75,000 bridges are in danger of collapse and another 79,000 can't handle today's demand, is a system that cries out for fundamental change.

The other basic problem is that the federal funding system, by design, shifts resources from populous, fast-growing states to low-population, low/no-growth states. You can understand why this was done originally: to make sure that Interstate links got built through rural states where there wasn't enough traffic to generate enough fuel-tax revenue to cover the cost. But that was then, and this is now. Today we have massive needs in specific locations: to expand urban expressways to alleviate congestion and to expand the capacity of key Interstate routes to keep commerce flowing. Yet the federal funding mechanism still takes funds from the states where these needs are greatest and sends them to places like Alaska and North Dakota. We couldn't have designed a more perverse approach to solving our highway investment problem if we tried.

Yet the simplistic answer of simply pumping more money into this flawed federal system is the best many pundits and analysts can do. That's pathetic.

Yes, we do need a major, sustained increase in capital investment in America's highway system. But those investments need to be targeted to critically important goods-movement and congestion-relief projects. The best way to do this is to turn to the capital markets, creating mechanisms to direct eager capital to projects that pencil out as viable investments. To their great credit, that's what DOT Secretary Mary Peters and her team have been trying to do, with their aggressive efforts to explain the merits of tolling, value pricing, and public-private partnerships. Before we rush into new federal crash programs and arbitrary fuel-tax increases, we should make a serious effort to figure out how much of the problem can be addressed with these critically important tools.

I think it's safe to assume that, given recent developments in tolling, we can address more of the problem than previously thought. See Bob's recent comments on this subject here.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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