In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Reason Director of Transportation Policy Robert Poole discusses the reasons the Highway Trust Fund is in trouble and why a user fee based on miles driven, rather than gas consumption, is the safe and sustainable solution. An excerpt of the interview is below. You can read more of the interview here.
Q: Why is the Highway Trust Fund in financial trouble?
A: The basic problem is that members of Congress for the last eight years have deliberately spent more than the federal fuel taxes on gasoline and diesel were bringing in. They did that because it was politically popular to fund more projects. There had been a big unspent balance in the Highway Trust Fund, and they deliberately spent that balance down in hopes it would lead to pressure for a gas-tax increase. That didn’t happen, but they kept on spending anyway.
Q: What other factors have led to the shortfall?
A: There are several reasons why the revenue didn’t increase as fast as people had expected. One, of course, was the Great Recession: A lot of people were unemployed, not commuting to work, and not taking discretionary trips. But also, federal policies are increasing the fuel economy of cars. That means less gas is consumed for a given amount of travel. And the federal fuel tax rate has not been increased since the early 1990s, yet there’s been inflation, so the money doesn’t go as far; it buys less.
Q: So what is the best way to get out of this problem?
A: The long-term answer is we’ve got to figure out a way to transition from paying for highways per gallon of fuel and switch to a system that would charge people per mile driven, because a mileage-based user fee is independent of the energy source for vehicles’ movement, and we don’t know what the future is going to be – what fraction of cars will be electric, hybrid, hydrogen fuel cells or traditional improved petroleum-based engines. So the soundest and safest thing to do is not to scrap the user-fee principle, but change it to a sustainable basis, which is miles traveled.
View more of the interview here.
Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation. This interview originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.