Opinion

The Great Debate

A better way to fund roads

diana-furchtgottroth–- Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The views expressed are her own. –-

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 Legislation passed in 1956 provided that, on completion, the federal tax would be repealed and funding restored to the states.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.

Embracing CAFE Society

Gas– Christopher Swann is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

President Obama may have a political Midas touch, but his decision to tighten fuel efficiency rules for cars was assailed from two directions.

Some critics charged that the rules would force car prices higher at the worst possible time — dealing a possible lethal blow to the American auto industry and hurting struggling consumers at the same time. Others berated the president for preferring regulation over a simpler tax increase. The Corporate Average Fuel economy standards — or CAFE — are costly, inefficient and politically craven.

Biofuels run into trouble

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Despite a promising start, the U.S. experiment with renewable fuels is facing a serious challenge next year. Falling gasoline consumption, lower pump prices and contradictions within the federal government program are intensifying existing pressures on ethanol distillers and farmers already struggling to cope with over-capacity and collapsing margins.

ETHANOL ENTHUSIASM

Between 2000 and 2007, production of fuel ethanol quadrupled from 1.6 billion to 6.5 billion gallons, and the industry is on course to distill a record 9.3 billion gallons in 2008.

Ethanol production is not really economic at oil prices below about $60-70 per barrel (prices of grains and fats for ethanol conversion and processing costs are too high relative to oil). So the original boost to ethanol came from its use as an oxygenating additive in reformulated gasoline, rather than as fuel in its own right, when a number of states banned the use of MTBE.

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