Actually, let’s not bother to fix federal transportation funding

We probably need higher gas taxes in the United States. We desperately need a federal carbon tax. But do we really need higher federal gas taxes?

No, we don’t.

As Congress debates highway-funding stopgaps and Oregon’s most influential transportation experts get ready for an Aug. 4 forum about the future of U.S. transportation funding, maybe it’s time for urbanists to shed our Rockefeller-funded patriotic umbrage drag and stop pretending that we really, really care about the sanctity of the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

All our states have gas taxes. Raise them 25 cents each (or whatever) and they can do the job just fine.

The transition from federal to full or nearly full state funding of transportation would be hard and ugly. But what would the beginning of such a transition look like? Look out the window. It would look like what’s happening right now.

federal gas tax
Source data here.

The Federal Highway Administration’s “unofficial historian” has assembled a short history of federal gas taxes. As he tells it, the federal government locked in its dominance in 1955, when a group of state governors gave up their fight for the federal government to let them take over the gas tax.

In other words, states settled for a world where the feds handled a lot of the tax hikes, took a lot of the heat and then passed almost all the money back to state DOTs. The politics made sense. The outcomes have been a disaster.

Left: renaissance-era Florence. Right: an urban freeway interchange in Atlanta. Same scale.

Like our rightly sainted leader, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, liberal urbanists pay lip service to the federal gas tax because we’re trying to negotiate multimodal reforms into federal transportation policy, and secondarily because we suspect a gas tax hike is the closest we’ll get to taxing greenhouse gas.

Maybe so. I’m not opposing compromises. But let’s cut the fizz and be honest about our actual goals. Preserving federal control of transportation isn’t among mine.

Last year, Chris highlighted a Strong Towns podcast arguing that we’d be better off without a federal Department of Transportation. As a fan, like Jane Jacobs, of subsidiarity, it’s hard for me to argue. There’s a federal role for research, design standardization, coordinating the Interstate system and improving interstate air, water and rail transport. The stub of the gas tax could pay for all of that indefinitely. Let’s fight for those things — and for state-level tax hikes as needed.

The big losers, as Igor and Joe B. pointed out in the comment thread that followed that post, would be Alaska, Montana and other cold, decentralized states that get a larger share of federal highway funds than they put in. (Unlike Oregon, which more or less breaks even.) Pulling subsidy from those states is a problem. But is it a bigger problem than letting Washington continue to set state-level transportation policy across the country?

Not in the world I see.

22 responses to “Actually, let’s not bother to fix federal transportation funding”

  1. Don’t let state DOTs, many of which remain essentially state highway departments (and captive to suburban and rural interests) have all the fun…..

      • Depends on the polity, and who’s in charge in Washington, but….

        * Many states, including Oregon, limit gas tax expenditures to roads and highways.
        * Many states, not including Oregon (fortunately), actively oppose non-highway urban transit projects, and do all sorts of things to frustrate them: Indiana has essentially banned light rail; Tennessee was considering a ban on effective BRT, in order to kill (or defeature) a proposed BRT line in Nashville. And while many of us here are pleased with the outcome, the CRC was essentially killed by Washington conservatives objecting to light rail.
        * Many states, again including Oregon (here the voters more than the Legislature), place sharp limits on the ability of local jurisdictions to raise revenue. There’s a reason the proposed Portland transportation fee was essentially a head tax: Portland can’t further raise property taxes due to Measure 5, sales taxes are illegal in Oregon, and the city lacks the infrastructure to collect income taxes (even if local income taxes were legal).
        * Many states, along with the feds, have been the prime movers in building the atrocities such as the Atlanta interchange you highlight above. Atlanta’s massive freeway system wasn’t built for the benefit of Atlantans, it was built for a combination of regional/interstate commerce (good) and to give the wealthier (and whiter) folks in Atlanta’s suburbs a quicker commute.

        The question of subsidiarity has long been an interesting one: Alon Levy has long preferred the federal government being the locus of much spending, including on local projects, on the grounds that it’s less corrupt than many local governments. OTOH, federal standards probably inflates the cost of many things–there was certainly advantages to be had in that the first Streetcar line WASN’T federally funded, thus did not come with many of the strings attached.

        This comment may not consist of “evidence”, given that I’ve cited nothing, but I hope it is at least somewhat useful. :)

        • I offered very little evidence either, so we’re even. :)

          All true statements but I don’t see how they show USDOT justifying its current role.

          – From what you describe, USDOT as it is today doesn’t seem to be preventing Indiana, Georgia, etc, from fucking themselves up at the behest of their voters. If there were some reason that USDOT were structurally aligned to always be friendlier to my agenda, I might think differently. But I don’t see any reason to think that the USDOT is muscling states into transit/walk/bike infrastructure against their will. I see lots of evidence that USDOT is muscling states (or at least cities) into freeway expenditure against their will.

          – I think Oregon’s constitutional restriction on gas tax use would have been less likely to (a) pass or (b) survive if we hadn’t found a way to shift our transit capital project needs over to the federal gas tax. In any case, I think most Oregon voters would agree that the current system has overinvested in transit capital projects relative to transit operations.

          • In any case, I think most Oregon voters would agree that the current system has overinvested in transit capital projects relative to transit operations.

            Good point. Guess which one the USDOT pays for, and which one the DOT doesn’t?

  2. It sure would eliminate the main argument that pro-crc folks seemed to have which was that we had to build the freeway expansion because it was free money from the federal government.

    • The CRC was nixed because the double-deck design was “Structurally Unsound” and had insufficient river clearance, plus, the Hayden Island Interchange proposed (Concept ‘D’ amended 2013) came with unacceptable “safety hazards” (steep downhill exit ramps to ‘T’ stops), noisy, polluting uphill entrance ramps, and poor land-use potential. Wsdot is mostly to blame, followed by the Ports and the new owners of Jantzen Beach Center parking-lot-o-lot-o-rama. A BRT from Jantzen Beach would have cut costs and could have evolved into LRT in due time. It was a fiasco, but the CRC project will be revived in a year or two. A single-deck bridge design is the obvious option as a 3-lane BRT/LRT bridge alongside the southbound span forms an emergency access lanes. Combine this with ODOT’s Concept #1 and it’s a respectable project for about $1billion less.

    • This is an excellent point. I think a change like this would make people look really hard at proposed mega-projects. I don’t think projects like the CRC would ever be considered without Federal involvement. Unfortunately, this would likely negatively impact large mass transit projects just as much as it would impact large freeway projects.

      • Chris, Interstate-5 is under the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission, a Federal Agency. The bridge is a also major commute corridor perfectly suitable for a high capacity transit. A BRT line on the same level, in addition to forming ‘lifesaving’ emergency access lanes (more ideally without the obstruction of light rail vehicles) also reduces the number of lanes recommended from 6-lanes to 5-lanes, reducing cost.

        Currently, both old bridges are “2-lanes” (acting as 3-lanes without shoulders). For that reason alone, both old bridges will be replaced as soon as possible. CRC Commission ‘leader’ Wsdot is most responsible for the fiasco, followed by the Ports and equally greedy Jantzen Beach Center commercial interests.

        • The Interstate Commerce Commission doesn’t exist anymore, and hasn’t existed for nearly 20 years. It was mostly declawed in 1980 by Jimmy Carter, and finally terminated in 1995.

          That said, I-5 (as an Interstate) is well under the jurisdiction of other federal agencies. A new local bridge that didn’t carry Interstate traffic might be doable with less federal involvement, but the feds will be involved with any plans to replace the I-5 crossing.

          • I don’t see a local bridge possible. A local truck route bridge alongside the BNSF from Columbia Blvd to Mill Plain via viaduct, perhaps? There’s no way to avoid rebuilding the Interstate Bridge. Neither will a new Columbia River bridge at 194th change that reality.

            • We will see if the PEER lab can propose some seismic improvements to the I-5 bridges that we can afford. The sky is not falling.

            • Plan the seismic upgrade to convert both bridges to handle northbound traffic, ie, new ramps. The 5-lane Southbound Span + 3-lane Transit/Ped Span reduced cost more than the alternatives, cleared river at 140′ with single-deck, emergency access lanes alongside, unforgiveable omission on the part of Wsdot, the ports, their friends.
              Odot finished fine Marine Dr, Expo-Hayden local and (Concept #1 still blacklisted by mainstream media). Off-island Access, safest, least emission option overruled by Wsdot, CRC Commission leader, coincidentally boring a 58′ diameter bore tunnel in mud under buildings, another weak seawall and a truck route up steep Mercer Place hill through Queen Anne and Lake Union to I-5.
              Love that pollution those Warshdots.

            • Um, okay. Guess I’ll see if we can keep that discussion private then. Your ideas sound pretty complicated—-when the underlying issue is addressing explosive West Side growth, with a multi modal Western Arterial Route.

  3. First of all, I agree with a carbon tax as increasing numbers of electric cars get a ‘questionable’ break on the gas tax. Secondarily, because I firmly contend that Plug-in hybrid EVs create more incentives to drive less. Drive a Prius PHEV 20 miles daily and the effective mileage is about 110mpg. Further miles driven achieve about 55mpg as their ‘small’ (5kwh) battery pack is discharged. Those further miles would come with a higher carbon tax. Any electric car plugged-in to a household incentivizes driving less as the electricity can be used for driving or household uses. But, the small PHEV battery pack is a more ideal match to a subsequently smaller, simpler, less expensive rooftop PV solar array. Should we plan to serve as many as 17 households with PHEVs or 1 household with a Tesla’s (85kwh) battery pack? PHEVs will complement rather than overload regional utility grids. The fewer miles driven, the more trips possible without having to drive and more trips become possible on mass transit, walking and bicycling, fundamental modes of urban/suburban travel unjustly impeded by car-centric infrastructure.

  4. “Preserving federal control of transportation isn’t among mine.”

    So, when a shipment is going from California to Washington, when they get to the Oregon border what would they do?

    Michael, Since your “urbanist” movement has resulted in immensely higher prices for everything, how do you expect people to pay for it? Other than energy consuming economic activity?

    OTOH, there are emerging innovative solutions that would reduce the cost to build and maintain infrastructure. Maybe we could get an executive order directing more money into the National Labs to that end, than in some of the silly things we have had from this administration.

    • While I don’t speak for Michael, I expect the Feds to remain control of actual interstate commerce. On the other hand, there are good reasons to be skeptical of a system in which money is sent to DC, stirred around in a big fat pot, and then sent back to states and cities for local/regional projects, but with all sorts of strings attached.

      As I’ve noted many times, a big reason that capital improvements seem to be prioritized over operational ones, is that’s what Uncle Sam will help pay for.

    • I don’t know what price increases you’re talking about – certainly not the last 10 years of noninflation?

      The national freeway network is complete; it’s not as if Oregon is going to move I-5 three miles to the west for no reason. At this point, we don’t need federalized funding of freeways to maintain a usable interstate freeway network any more than any international freeway network does.

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