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Squandering Dollars: Raising the Gas Tax Isn’t Sufficient to Solve Our Transportation Problems

Frontier Group intern Johanna Moody contributed this blog post.

With the federal Highway Trust Fund scheduled to run dry by September and the long-term future of the main source of federal transportation funding in doubt, state governments are increasingly taking the lead in developing their own solutions to the transportation funding crisis.

So far this year, a dozen states, including Washington and Maryland, have taken steps to address transportation funding.  On June 29, Maryland raised its gas tax by 3.5 cents per gallon. On the same day, Washington’s state Senate passed a bill calling for a 7 cent per gallon increase in its state gas tax, to take effect on August 1, as part of a $16.1 billion statewide transportation plan.

In raising their gas taxes, Maryland and Washington took a politically bold step. However, the result of those moves is likely to be – at least in part – more of the same kind of massive highway expansions that have done little to address congestion while endangering our environment and threatening our quality of life.

Maryland’s new highway-focused transportation plan, for example, cancels the proposed Red Line light rail route through Baltimore, and cuts $532 million in funding for the proposed Purple Line in Montgomery County. At the same time, the plan funds more than $800 million in major road projects across the state, including numerous expensive highway widening projects.  

In Washington state, lawmakers approved a highway-heavy package of transportation projects, including the Puget Sound Gateway, a $3 billion highway expansion project in King and Pierce counties. Washington’s Department of Transportation (WSDOT) claims that the megaproject will serve to achieve two major goals: relieving traffic congestion and completing freight links between the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma and key distribution centers. Traffic in the area, however, isn’t growing: the number of vehicle-miles traveled on state highways in King and Pierce counties stagnated between 2003 and 2014. It is also debatable whether shaving a few minutes off of freight travel should be a high priority given the project’s multi-billion dollar price tag, which exceeds the total amount of funding devoted to road and bridge maintenance in the package.

While there is no doubt that the federal and state highway funding system is in dire need of revision, it is not a real solution as long as states continue to prioritize highway-widening projects that ignore recent changes in travel patterns, growing demand for public transportation and other non-driving modes of travel, and the growing number of roadways and bridges in need of repair nationwide.