A very sensible op-ed in today's LA Times on how to fix our nation's broken federal transportation funding system:
Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain tend to blame earmarks for all the country's infrastructure woes, but it isn't that simple. Earmarks accounted for about $24 billion of the $286-billion transportation bill in 2005, or roughly 8% of the money. Yet a landmark report from the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission estimates that it would take $225 billion a year for the next 50 years to sufficiently upgrade the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Just cutting out pork won't come close to covering that.
Actually, it's tough to imagine any way of raising that kind of money, but the current system leaves ample room for improvement. To start with, the next transportation bill should contain zero earmarks. It should change the way federal funding is approved, making sure that only projects that serve the national interest are funded and that they are subject to cost-benefit analysis. It should encourage private funding of public infrastructure, such as toll roads and bridges, by removing roadblocks to such deals. It should also encourage innovative fundraising strategies such as urban congestion pricing and freeway toll lanes.
And lastly, something has to be done about the gas tax. The federal commission recommends raising it by 25 to 40 cents a gallon over five years, then indexing it to inflation. For the sake of our infrastructure, and for meeting the twin goals of improving the environment and weaning ourselves off foreign oil, that would be the right thing to do; it's also completely impractical. At a time when high gas prices have become a defining political issue, there is no chance Congress would approve a gas-tax hike. So what then?
The vehicle mileage tax is probably the answer. Rather than taxing people based on the amount of gas they buy, it would tax them based on the number of miles they drive. Most likely, this would be done by installing tamper-proof devices in vehicles that would transmit mileage information to a tax office, though the data also could simply be confirmed by a certified mechanic. Some states are performing pilot studies on mileage taxes, but they're a long way from having all the bugs worked out -- there are serious technical and logistics questions, not to mention privacy concerns (many people are uncomfortable beaming information about their driving habits to the government). Nonetheless, a mileage tax makes sense because it rightly puts the burden for building and maintaining roads on the shoulders of those who use them, even if they happen to drive high-mileage cars. The next transportation bill should at least invest in more study of these systems.