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.

florence
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.

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