Best Thing We Could Do for Transportation: Abolish USDOT?

I’m a fan of Chuck Marohn and his “Strong Towns” organization. We start from different places but get to generally the same priorities for transportation spending. His focus is fiscal sustainability and in a recent podcast, he makes the case that Federal transportation policy, as implemented by the US Department of Transportation, has the effect of prioritizing growth over maintenance.

Essentially the argument is that the feds collect gas taxes in all 50 states, then return those funds as matches for large capital projects (for both roads and transit) that are mostly growth-oriented (at here we can hope to say that our transit projects are smart-growth oriented). But the matching nature of these funds means that local funds are also directed away from maintenance to make the match.

He suggests we’d be better off if the Federal Government stopped collecting gas taxes and instead allowed the states to raise their own gas taxes by an equal amount and make prioritization decisions locally.

He also suggests that since the Feds have matching programs for roads and transit, but not cycling and walking, Bike and Ped advocates would prefer purely local decision making.

In Oregon that might be a big blow for transit, because constitutionally state gas taxes may not be used for transit, but the general proposition is eye-opening.

11 Comments

11 Responses to Best Thing We Could Do for Transportation: Abolish USDOT?

  1. igor
    April 2, 2013 at 10:53 am Link

    But wouldn’t a state-by-state apportioning system give a disproportionate amount of money to states with high population density, and fewer miles of roads? I’d think that Montana and Wyoming would fare poorly, and Connecticut would do well.

  2. EngineerScotty
    April 2, 2013 at 11:16 am Link

    One problem with road funding in Oregon isn’t necessarily that gas taxes are dedicated thereto–it’s that roads get the tax TAX *plus* a whole bunch of the general fund.

    Were roads funded entirely by gas taxes and/or other fees charged to motorists (including trucking), and general taxes lowered by an equivalent amount, I would consider that a good thing.

  3. EngineerScotty
    April 2, 2013 at 11:16 am Link

    One problem with road funding in Oregon isn’t necessarily that gas taxes are dedicated thereto–it’s that roads get the tax TAX *plus* a whole bunch of the general fund.

    Were roads funded entirely by gas taxes and/or other fees charged to motorists (including trucking), and general taxes lowered by an equivalent amount, I would consider that a good thing.

  4. Allan
    April 2, 2013 at 11:30 am Link

    The problem is that the federal government likes to help big projects more than small ones so that or projects tend to grow more than they would without the match. The hope is that less ladies of government would lead to better choices being made by the group funding projects

  5. al m
    April 2, 2013 at 11:48 am Link

    His focus is fiscal sustainability and in a recent podcast, he makes the case that Federal transportation policy, as implemented by the US Department of Transportation, has the effect of prioritizing growth over maintenance.

    ~~>YUP and that growth leads to the unsustainable conditions since the FED’s won’t pay for operations.

    And of course greedy executives at all these local districts just can’t wait to get their hot little hands on all that money since they can skim off a % for ‘administrative costs’.

    The FED’s are the problem, they have a habit of doing everything wrong.

  6. Anandakos
    April 2, 2013 at 2:21 pm Link

    @igor,

    Well, yes and no. Remember that the low population density states have higher average miles per year per driver, because everyone has to go farther to get anywhere.

    So they get more fuel tax per driver than does Connecticut, where a two-week vacation can get you as far west as Albany.

  7. Lenny Anderson
    April 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm Link

    urban areas subsidize rural areas taxwise; same for more urban states subsidizing more rural ones.
    Blue states subsidize Red states.
    Two things would have to happen to make me consider this. Amending the OR constitution so that local jurisdictions like Portland could spend their gas tax money on whatever transportation project the citizens like. Second, a stronger Metro area tax base for multi-modal transportation projects, including high capacity transit.

  8. dwainedibbly
    April 2, 2013 at 6:11 pm Link

    Anybody know the stats on whether Oregon is a net gainer or loser of fuel tax monies? Do we get back more than we contribute, or do we get back less? We’re a mostly rural state with a high concentration in one area. I wonder how that makes the math work out.

  9. al m
    April 2, 2013 at 10:03 pm Link

    Second, a stronger Metro area tax base for multi-modal transportation projects, including high capacity transit.

    OY!
    Can’t touch this!

  10. joe b.
    April 3, 2013 at 2:13 pm Link

    @dwainedibbly: All states have been net gainers recently due to the transfers from the General Fund. From 2005-2009, Oregon got back $1.30 for every dollar we put in (http://www.gao.gov/assets/520/511454.pdf). Some states definitely benefit more from the formula funding, though. Montana gets back $2.71 for every dollar in.

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