A better way to fund roads
Just as motorists began the summer driving season, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress that the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by August. Rising gasoline prices and the recession mean less driving, and less driving means lower revenues from gasoline taxes for the Highway Trust Fund.
At the same time, President Obama wants to spend $13 billion as a downpayment on high-speed rail, an expensive form of transportation that will reach only small segments of the country and that will not substitute for highways. The money would be better spent on developing a more stable source of revenue for highways, based on miles driven rather than gasoline used, that would help to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
When the Highway Trust Fund ran out of money in 2008, Congress transferred $8 billion to the fund from general revenues as a repayment from 1998, when the fund was in surplus, and $8 billion was moved into general spending. This year, if Congress transfers money, it would be a direct expenditure, with no fig leaf. Without a transfer, work on many projects would stop or slow down.
The federal government financed the interstate highway system by means of a fuel tax because that was the best method available. Legislation passed in 1956 provided that, on completion, the federal tax would be repealed and funding restored to the states. The highway system is now complete, so there is no rationale for continuing federal involvement in financing state roads.
The $13 billion allocated for high-speed rail would be better spent to encourage the states to adopt a new way of charging for road use. Driving is the primary method of transportation for Americans. They own about 235 million registered passenger cars, vans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, and drive over 2.5 trillion miles a year.
Mechanisms for improving road finance were addressed earlier this year in a pathbreaking bipartisan report by the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission entitled Paying Our Way: A New Framework for Transportation Finance.
The Commission concluded that America should move away from gasoline taxes as a way to fund roads. With more efficient cars, motorists will be able to travel further using less gasoline while still imposing wear-and-tear on roads. Hence, maintenance and repair should be funded through direct user charges that are based on miles traveled on all streets and roads, rather than on gasoline purchased.
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar regards a vehicle mileage charge as one of a number of options under consideration as a complement or alternative to a gasoline tax, but he is not committed to any course of action, according to the committee communications director Jim Berard.
Ideally, a vehicle mileage charge would require a tamper-proof device that would track not only miles and time of day driven but also the route selected. This would allow states and local governments to vary the charges based on route taken and time of day driven. Motorists who travel on congested roads at peak times of day could be charged more, encouraging them to shift their travel away from rush hour.
Since the change in road financing cannot be made immediately, the Commission recommends setting up a user-charge system that would work in conjunction with the Highway Trust Fund until 2020, at which point the new system would be in place to take over.
Full transition to this new revenue system would require research, the purchase of technology, and pilot projects, all of which would be a better use of stimulus funds than high-speed rail. With prices of transponders and global positioning systems falling, sophisticated and efficient road pricing systems are now possible. GPS devices could be given to drivers who choose to participate, and drivers could pay as easily as they now pay for cell phones or E-ZPass tolls.
To make road user charges more politically palatable, participating motorists could be exempt from registration fees, but would pay road charges instead, charges that could vary by type of road used and time of day. Technologies exist to ensure that detailed information on trips is not sent out to motorists so that privacy is preserved.
The vanishing Highway Trust Fund is a wake-up call to use new technology to make our roads flow better.