All Your Disposable Income Are Belong to Us

In an editorial opposing an increase in the gasoline tax the editors of the Wall Street Journal make a number of good points. The federal excise tax on gasoline funds a lot more than interstates these days:

But since the 1990s, the Highway Trust Fund has come to fund much more than new roads and bridges and highway maintenance, abandoning the original “user pays” principle behind a gas tax. Drivers now see about a quarter of their gas taxes diverted to subsidize mass transit in merely six metro areas and sundry other programs for street cars, ferries, sidewalks, bike lanes, hiking trails, urban planning and even landscaping nationwide. Trolley riders, et al., contribute nothing to the HTF.

Federal spending on such side projects has increased 38% since 2008, while highway spending is flat. Here’s what the politicians won’t say: Simply using the taxes that are supposed to pay for highways to, well, pay for highways makes the HTF 98% solvent for the next decade, no tax increase necessary.

Our infrastructure (defined as roads and bridges) isn’t in as bad a shape as the advance publicity might lead you to believe:

Another myth is that U.S. roads and bridges are “crumbling,” to use the invariable media description. Federal Highway Administration data show that the condition, quality and safety of U.S. surface transportation are steadily improving. The Chicago Federal Reserve Bank noted in a 2009 paper that roads have “indisputably” improved over the last two decades and that “the surface of the median interstate highway mile is suitable for superhighway speeds not typically permitted in the United States.”

And states are actually able to build roads and bridges more efficiently than the federal government is:

Almost three-quarters of highway spending is already supplied by state and local governments, and if the federal role is reduced, they can decide either to increase their own gas taxes; fund roads some other way, such as tolls or public-private partnerships; or use tax dollars for other priorities like schools. States can build cheaper in any case, since the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rules and Buy America procurement provisions that accompany federal funding don’t apply.

The points I wish they had made is that if the income that lower gas prices brings is used as a windfall for federal revenues (by increasing the gas tax) it will affect the economy adversely and the gas tax is very regressive.

I know that someone will quote the civil engineers’ report to me. Their annual report says nothing about what roads and bridges are worth repairing but only addresses the raw numbers of roads and bridges and their condition. A bridge over a creek in rural Wyoming that hasn’t been used by anybody in a decade has the same weight in the engineers’ report as a brand spanking new bridge in Chicago that 10,000 people use every day. We have a lot of old, dilapidated useless roads and bridges.

One modest proposal for those who believe we should be using less gas: rather than building more roads start removing some. Interstates allow areas to be developed that otherwise would not be. They encourage gasoline consumption.

9 comments… add one
  • ... Link

    Our infrastructure (defined as roads and bridges) isn’t in as bad a shape as the advance publicity might lead you to believe:

    Yeah, I’ve been hearing that every bridge in America is going to fall down ANY MINUTE NOW since the mid-1980s. And that’s just as far back as I have been paying attention, it could back to the time the Jamestown settlers got off the boat, for all I know. “The Roanoke Colony failed for lack cut roadways, your Majesty!”

    Anyway, in all that time, I recall only two, the one up in Minneapolis, and I think one may have failed down here once. Maybe. But most of the problems we’ve had in my area have come from people crashing into the bridges, which can’t conceivably count.

  • My reaction to the Minneapolis bridge failure (I think I wrote a post on it) was twofold:

    1. What the heck is the federal government doing subsidizing a bridge within Minnesota?

    2. Why aren’t the people of Minnesota interested in keeping the bridge up?

    IIRC the final finding there was that there was actual malfeasance.

    most of the problems we’ve had in my area have come from people crashing into the bridges

    Tightening up on the requirements for obtaining a driver’s license would probably help.

  • I checked up on that old post. It was better than I recalled it being. I devoted most of my attention to the lack of life cycle planning which is, indeed, one of our problems. Yet another thing that only makes practical sense if next year’s revenues are always larger than last’s

  • Guarneri Link

    I usually recall this stuff, but I guess I’m getting old.

    But if my memory serves it failed in fatigue secondary to crack initiation by corrosion either not acted upon after inspection or by a known design flaw (safety factor).

    In any event when do pols and media types not pull at the heartstrings to justify spending. You know, grandma might have to choose between eating dog food or her medications………………unless QE destroys the interest income on her savings or the gas tax costs her $25 a month…….oh, wait. Hold on! Reboot.

    You know, without safe bridges grandma can’t go to the church across the river, so she might suffer terrible stress and get cancer. Don’t let the Rrepublicans cause grandma to get cancer. Support the gas tax now, for jobs, and grandma.

  • John Burgess Link

    I drove up and back to DC from West-Central FL for the holidays. My route took me on I-75, US-301 I-10, and I-95. On the whole, the roads were in good shape, though the Carolinas were both primarily two-lane, rather than the three- or four-lanes in other states.

    Road surfaces on bridges were not particularly good in the Carolinas, but fine elsewhere.

    There was road construction going on in all the states, including a 27-mile stretch in GA.

    County and municipal surface streets everywhere I stopped — including DC — could use some attention.

  • mike shupp Link

    Interstates allow areas to be developed that otherwise would not be.

    I think I’ll agree with the line, but disagree with the underlying sentiment. I’ve driven or been driven across the country a few times — half a dozen or so in 60 years — and it’s disheartening to see how the nation has “hollowed out.” There are few things sadder than driving through a small town where the buildings are mostly empty and children are invisible. And few things more disconcerting than googling a city in which one graduated from high school and finding that in the years since, its population has fallen in half.

    Much of the American interior — a chunk of land about 2000 miles wide and 1200 miles deep — has essentially been depopulated over the past fifty years as small farms and manufacturing plants dwindled away, and people moved to the big cities — usually coastal — to make a living. It’d be nice to repopulate that Empty Land and revive small towns and small cities as living spaces in America. I don’t know how to do it, I don’t have a magic plan, it isn’t a liberal idea or a conservative one, just a sentiment. (I think it’s one either Republicans or Democrats might legitimately choose to push someday, but that’s another issue. )

    The main thing is, fast reliable transportation all through this central region seems sort of a minimally essential thing for bringing this region back to life and integrating it with the nation as a whole. So I’m kind of grateful we have that Interstate system you’d be willing to let die off.

  • steve Link

    Is anyone actually repairing those unused roads? I can tell you that in coal country the less used roads are just being let go. Lots of signs saying “Drive at your own risk”.


  • Andy Link

    “Interstates allow areas to be developed that otherwise would not be.”

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true for actual interstates – it’s certainly true for the 3-digit “Interstate” highways built near cities though.

  • Guarneri Link


    The GA stretch was a bitch, wasn’t it? Be thankful you didn’t have to go through KY which it seems is entirely under construction. Gee, what prominent pol is from KY?


    I drove the summer car from Chicago down to Naples in FL in Nov. Thought I’d take in some sights south of Atlanta by taking the GA – FL expressway. Mistake. Lost towns, crumbling bldgs, dead motels etc etc. more mobile homes than I’ve ever seen. And yet, go down 75 and you have a string of prospering areas. I’d say the interstate killed the panhandle. Winners and losers.

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