Friday, April 4, 2014

Will improved Interstates force people into bypassing their Big Macs?

This remarkable question is posed in a remarkably silly story in the New York Times (here).  The Big Mac question is supposed to be a simplified summary of “the debate over repairs to the nation’s federal highways.”  (Note that the writer, who is obviously poorly informed on these matters, appears most of the time to be referring to the Interstate highway system in his story.  Worst quote: “By law, money from the Highway Trust Fund cannot be used for state roads.”  Uh…no.)
The point of the story appears to be that there is a debate of sorts between people who advocate tolling as a solution to highway funding and those who object for various reasons (fast food vendors among others).  This is true as far as it goes, but misses several points that I think are important.  First of all, the Interstate system has big needs, but it is only one segment of a transportation network with a lot of big needs.  As a practical matter, tolling works well in some places, but would be difficult to apply to many segments of the Interstate system – especially metropolitan areas, where most of the traffic is.  Increased use of tolling – and higher tolls – would definitely raise some money, but nowhere near enough to offset the decline in the Highway Trust Fund.
More importantly, the story pretty much avoids what I regard as the central question: why don’t we just raise the gas tax to pay for repairs to the Interstate system, repairs to other highways and transit systems, and beginning to build a real 21st century transportation network?  As I have said before, avoiding using the gas tax to pay for transportation needs is like avoiding the hammer in front of you when you have a nail to drive, and instead searching around the room for wastebaskets, heavy books, or staplers to use.  The story does quote former Governor Rendell as saying we should look at more tolling because “there is no appetite to increase the gas tax.”  And one anti-tolling advocate is cited as arguing for an increased gas tax.  But why is there no appetite for the gas tax?  No one likes raising taxes, but for many years there was bipartisan support in Congress for bumping up the gas tax when it was needed.  The missing piece of the story is the rising influence of anti-tax, Tea Party conservatives, who have had a corrosive effect on federal investment in anything, including transportation. 
The good news is that we have seen a rebirth of bipartisan transportation funding efforts at the state level.  Republican legislators in Pennsylvania and Virginia probably didn’t have an “appetite” for raising the gas tax either, but they voted for it. 

Hopefully we will begin to have a real and constructive debate on these issues – and hopefully the New York Times will do a better job of covering it.

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