The Transportation Crisis: It’s About Priorities, Not Just Money

If most drivers are unwilling to pay the tab for fixing our highways, who will? The likely answer is you.

(Cross-posted from Huffington Post.)

You know lawmakers on Capitol Hill are desperate for transportation funding when they look at the struggling U.S. Postal Service and see a potential cash cow.

Members of Congress have floated the idea of raiding the Postal Service to fill the gap in the Highway Trust Fund, which is on track to go broke in late August. It is just the latest in a series of desperate steps policy-makers have considered to keep federal transportation funding flowing.

Congress could, of course, simply ask the people who use the roads to pick up the tab by raising the federal gas tax. But, with polling numbers showing gas tax hikes supported by less than a third of Americans, that idea is going nowhere fast. Other ideas to make drivers pay — such as allowing tolling on existing Interstates or supplanting the gas tax with a per-mile tax — are also meeting stiff headwinds.

So, if most drivers are unwilling to pay the tab for fixing our highways, who will?

The likely answer is you — whether you bike to work or drive a 100-mile-a-day “mega-commute” — through your local, state and federal taxes.

You are already paying more for highways with these other taxes than you may realize. The taxes Americans pay at the pump have never been sufficient to cover the cost of building and maintaining the roads — local streets and roads, for example, are usually paid for through property taxes, not gas taxes. And while some complain about supporting public transit with a share of gas tax revenue, many of those investments wind up benefiting drivers anyway by reducing congestion and pollution.

More and more, these other taxes have been paying for transportation. Between 2002 and 2012, the amount governments spent on highways from general funds, property taxes and other non-driver revenues jumped from $34 billion to $69 billion, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That’s an inflation-adjusted increase of 58 percent. The root cause is the declining buying power of the gas tax, which has been eroded by inflation, improved vehicle gas mileage, and the recent fall in the number of miles Americans are driving.

Even as gas tax revenues dip, however, our transportation policy remains largely focused toward building ever more and wider highways, instead of serving the full array of America’s emerging transportation needs.

A case in point: According to Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, states continue to spend $20 billion each year to build new highways and widen existing ones. That’s despite the fact that Americans are driving less now in total than we did in 2005, and less on average than we did in the mid-1990s. The money currently being plowed into new highways could almost certainly be better spent instead on fixing our existing roads, bridges and transit systems and on providing more Americans with a broader array of transportation choices — including transit, intercity rail, and facilities for biking and walking.

With some officials forecasting little growth in driving for the foreseeable future, and with drivers chafing at the prospect of paying for the repair and refurbishment of the highways they use each day, why not take this opportunity to imagine a federal transportation policy that truly works for all of us — especially if all of us could very well wind up picking up the tab for it?

Using budgetary gimmicks and quick fixes might avoid the trauma of going over this summer’s “transportation fiscal cliff,” but it is no long-term solution to our transportation problems. It’s time to face facts and develop a transportation plan that meets America’s evolving, 21st century transportation needs … and then generate the political will and the money to make it a reality.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.