» The rejection of Pennsylvania’s bid to toll I-80 was premised on the idea that road fees should only benefit users of that highway.
After a year spent lobbying states to develop “alternative” revenue sources for replacing the federal government’s rapidly shrinking budget for roads and transit, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood rejected Pennsylvania’s request to implement tolls on I-80, citing a law that prevents such funds from being used for anything but the roads where they’re raised. The ruling puts the state in a $500 million fiscal hole and will significantly affect transit agencies from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, all of which had been hoping to take advantage of the new financing source.
The government’s interpretation of the law suggests that it will be difficult for any state to implement tolls on existing Interstate highways without a promise that it will use all revenues for the sake of the maintenance and upgrade of the road where money is charged. In no way does this prevent future roads from being built and funded through tolls, but it certainly suggests that the chances of being allowed to charge users new fees to drive on existing roads are slim. The law will have to be changed if Mr. LaHood wants to continue pushing for “different” ways to fund transportation — or the Secretary will have to recant and begin advocating a gas tax increase to fulfill Washington’s obligation to pay for infrastructure maintenance and construction, a step the administration has repeatedly said it is unwilling to do.
I’ll refrain from commenting here on the merits of tolls; I have suggested in the past that taking advantage of this revenue stream in metropolitan areas with poor public transportation links could result in a significant decline in mobility for the poor and lower middle class.
Nonetheless, today’s explicit vision of transportation funding, premised on the idea that “user fees” should pay for improvements and expansions, must be challenged. The assumption, promoted for years, that a gas tax-financed highway network “pays for itself,” is no longer accurate. Nor does it allow for society to transition easily from existing travel modes to more sustainable ones. Apart from the benefits and pitfalls of tolling, the idea that a new revenue source couldn’t be instituted in Pennsylvania because the funds raised won’t go directly back to those paying them is an antiquated manner of going about building future infrastructure.
The highway system that “pays for itself” — the foundation of the user fee concept — is the progeny of the federal government’s decision to use fuel taxes as the primary funding source for new roads. The system enforces the idea that people who drive should pay for the roads on which they travel by contributing every time they fill up. The problem with this idea is that it only applies to federally funded highways: All the other roads on which people travel to get to those highways are funded by state and local sources, often not user fees. So even in its heyday, the system didn’t “pay for itself.”
The gas tax system also cannot keep up with changing automobile propulsion technologies; people driving more fuel efficient or even zero emissions vehicles simply are not contributing to the costs of road construction. Thus not only the recent decline in federal government revenues but also the demand from Secretary LaHood for a new and different way to pay for projects, even while maintaining his insistence on the user fee approach.
More importantly for advocates of alternative transportation, the user fee system doesn’t work for transit and other non-automobile solutions because they are invariably subsidized by revenues originating from other sources. In other words, while some mass transit spending is user fee-based (the fares on buses and trains), most of it comes from elsewhere.
How can we continue to argue that the transportation system should be funded through user fees when a significant part of the network contributes nothing to the larger account? The fact that road users contribute all of the funds to Washington’s transportation account continues to be a political problem, since only 70% of overall spending goes back into roads. If the user fee theory is the guiding principle, how can that be justified?
I have argued previously that an expansion of income tax sourced general fund spending, already the money being used to shore up the federal transportation gap in the absence of a new transportation bill, would be the most appropriate, most socially equitable way to improve overall financing for all types of infrastructure spending.
But in order to move forward with a long-term reliance on such money, the political obsession with using user fees to pay for more roads and transit must come to an end. While the idea that roads “pay for themselves” may sound romantic, it results in a system that spends far too much on roads; it also provides the rationality for decisions such as the recent Pennsylvania one since based on user fees alone, it makes little since to transfer funds raised on I-80 to transit elsewhere.
We need a political shift: a new conception of how transportation is funded to meet new needs.
Image above: Roads and Railways, from Flickr user woodleywonderworks (cc)