Politics in Transportation Funding

Yonah Freemark over at The Transport Politic laments the broken funding structure of transportation projects:

But in a country where the vast majority of people drive to fulfill the majority of their transport needs, it would be politically untenable to suggest that most roads money be transferred to transit users.

True. We spend money on gas to fuel our cars. We pay gas tax when we fuel our cars. We expect that tax to better the driving environment for our cars. Pretty simple relationship.

Nonetheless, the American transport funding mechanism is routed in the user fee, a product of a certain logic that assumes that people should pay for what they use.

I disagree here. Our transport funding mechanism isn’t entirely rooted in a user fee… it’s rooted in a gas tax. If it’s a user fee then it’s predicated upon the wrong idea, that the good I’m using is gas. The reality is that I’m using infrastructure. Gas is my fuel, but when I drive from point A to B I’m consuming the infrastructure. I’m placing wear and tear on the infrastructure.

If I buy a Nissan Leaf I suddenly stop paying the gas tax… but I’m still consuming the infrastructure. If Doc Brown installs a “Mr. Fusion” unit in his Delorean he stops paying the gas tax… but he still consumes the infrastructure. That’s why a true user fee is a good idea. The logic “that assumes that people should pay for what they use” is the right logic. It’s just distorted through Disparate Funding Structures (one of our main problems).

Yonah finishes by throwing out two solutions to the funding structure problem:

But a right-headed long-term approach would require that either we pull the national government out of the transport financing game altogether, or that we pull away from the direct connection between highway user fee collections and spending.

I think he’s on the right track when he mentions pulling the national government out of the transport financing “game.” Such an appropriate word there. One of our other main problems, the fact that Politics Trumps Solutions, has turned our transportation funding into a game where the States are unwitting contestants in a sort of Survivor-esque reality show.

Now, how do we go about pulling the national government out of the “game?”