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Unfrozen Caveman Transportation Policy

Back in the nineties there was a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live in which Phil Hartmann played a caveman who, frozen 1000 years ago, is thawed out by scientists and becomes a slick, high-powered lawyer. The schtick is that while the caveman/lawyer claims that he fails to understand the marvels of the modern world, he conveys some innate, down-home caveman wisdom that convinces the jury of the innocence of his client, however guilty he or she may be.

I was reminded of this when reviewing the Reason Foundation's latest recommendations for the federal transportation trust fund. Reason's argument is that we would actually have plenty of money to fix up our Interstate highways and even expand the system if we were to just stop funding all those pesky transit and transportation enhancement projects (as well as aid to the states for non-Interstate highways) out of the federal gas tax. The argument is that federal gas taxes are "user fees" that should only be used for projects of national significance. Interstate highways meet that definition. Transit, high-speed rail, bike lanes and sidewalks need not apply.

The Reason paper is the latest attempt by the highway lobby to give the notion that federal gas taxes should only be spent on Interstate highways the gloss of eternal wisdom, on the order of the original intent of the Founders or the Ten Commandments. If only we returned to this fundamental principle, Reason argues, the public would once again have “confidence” in the Highway Trust Fund and, presumably, be willing to support future increases in the gas tax that they do not support now.

Unpacking Reason’s argument takes effort, since the idea that highways “pay for themselves” – and ought to – is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of transportation policy wonks in the U.S.

Let’s start with the notion that the use of federal gas taxes to support Interstate highway construction represents a “user fee.” It doesn’t and never has. If it were a pure user fee, then gas taxes would only be assessed for travel on those highways that receive federal funding. As it is now, however, a person can never use an Interstate highway in his or her life, and yet still must pay federal gas tax for every gallon of gasoline used – even those used to drive to the grocery store on strictly local streets. Since travel on Interstate highways accounts for less than 25 percent of total vehicle miles traveled, the federal gas tax represents a large subsidy to heavy users of those highways from users of other roads and streets.

The cross-subsidization doesn’t stop there. Take, for example, the federal role in building and maintaining highways such as the sparsely traveled Interstate 88, which I travel often between Albany and my wife’s hometown of Binghamton, NY, and which would be unlikely to generate enough traffic in a million years to truly “pay for itself.” (I’m stretching the point here, but not by much.) Or the federal investment in Boston’s own exorbitantly costly “Big Dig.”

You get the picture. The point being that the only roads that arguably “pay for themselves” are toll roads (and even then we're not beginning to take into account the inherent subsidies involved in low-cost public financing or the use of eminent domain, or the costs imposed by drivers on the environment and public health). The federal gas tax may have been opportunistically billed as a “user fee,” but what it really represented was an extremely efficient way to generate and sustain capital for a massive federal infrastructure investment – the Interstate highway system – that was considered to be of national importance.

Ah, but Reason argues, the Interstate highway system really is a national priority, as opposed to all other transportation investments, which are state and local issues.  After all, they are Interstate highways – get it?

Yet, there is no reason why the long-distance movement of cars or freight, or knocking five minutes off a suburban commuter’s drive along a packed urban Interstate, is any more of a national priority than, say, providing efficient transit access to the core of our major financial, political and cultural capitals; reducing America’s crushing dependence on oil; facilitating transportation in metropolitan areas, which are the engines of our national economy; alleviating highway congestion through other means (such as investments in transit or car-pooling); or even, for that matter, promoting improved health and mobility through investments in bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure, programs that are usually held up by the highway lobby as prime examples of the invasion of bleeding-heart squishiness into transportation policy.

The real motivation behind the highway lobby’s claim over the federal gas tax is to give investments in highways a privileged position over investments in other transportation modes. Ken Orski (who we’ve met before here) says, in reviewing the Reason proposal: “Those who urge restoring the Trust Fund to its original purpose are not necessarily against streetcars, bicycles or ‘walkable communities.’ … But let those amenities be funded by state and local governments, they say, or by general revenues, as are a host of other social programs that are deemed worthy of federal support.”

This is disingenuous. The highway lobby likes the idea of a dedicated gas tax because it is dedicated. Dedicated funding – free from the uncertainty of annual budget cycles and legislative appropriations – is what every advocate of a program requiring major government investment dreams of. It’s the Holy Grail. 

When Orski or others say that their support for a federal gas tax dedicated to the Interstates doesn’t imply lack of support for other alternatives, the fact of the matter is this: Yes. It. Does.  Interstate highway investments, they believe, are worthy enough national priorities that they deserve a guaranteed funding source drawn from the pocketbooks of allmotorists nationwide. Everything else is secondary.

The debate over whether those are the right priorities for our national transportation policy is a debate very much worth having, and Reason and others are perfectly entitled to their opinions. But times and priorities have changed since the nation created the federal gas tax to build the Interstate highway system in the 1950s. Those changes in priorities are reflected (to some extent, though not nearly enough) in how the money generated by the federal gas tax is now spent.

It is critical that our nation’s future transportation investment decisions not be driven by “unfrozen” policies from a very different time, nor inaccurate notions about the degree to which highways do or should “pay for themselves,” but rather by a clear-eyed vision of the kind of infrastructure our nation will need to thrive in the 21st century. Only by figuring out our true national priorities can we then turn ourselves to the task of designing a funding system that provides the revenue needed to make them a reality.