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.