Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Secretary of Roads Instead of Transportation

The Folly Of Higher Gas Taxes
By Mary E. Peters Saturday, August 25, 2007; A15
America was stunned on Aug. 1 when the Interstate 35 West bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed in a tangle of vehicles, concrete and steel. My department is working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board to determine why the bridge failed, and in the aftermath of this tragedy, a necessary national conversation has begun concerning the state of the nation's bridges and highways and the financial model used to build, maintain and operate them.
Many, including The Post [" Paying the Price," editorial, Aug. 21], are taking this opportunity to call for gasoline tax increases and a larger federal presence in transportation investment decisions. For a variety of reasons, a response of this sort would exacerbate our transportation system failures, not alleviate them.
A far better question than whether gas taxes are high enough is what taxpayers get if we expand our dependence on the gasoline tax. The answer is almost certainly higher gas prices, more congestion and stagnating quality of life, which is why The Post's call for a substantial increase in the nation's gas tax is ill-advised.
Our system is failing because federal gasoline taxes are deposited into a centralized trust fund and allocated based on political will. Major spending decisions often have nothing to do with underlying economics, engineering realities or consumer needs. New programs and pet project earmarks have proliferated in recent years. The 2005 transportation funding bill, for example, included more than 6,000 politically driven earmarks reported to cost some $24 billion. That's a staggering figure. The true price however is unfortunately much higher because earmarks typically represent only a fraction of project costs.
In addition to breeding wasteful spending, the gas tax does virtually nothing to reduce the explosion in highway congestion occurring in the past 25 years. Gas taxes are levied regardless of when and where someone drives, creating a misperception that highways are "free." In turn, this encourages overuse and gridlock, often at precisely the times we need highways the most. The Government Accountability Office last month released a report arguing that gas taxes are fundamentally incapable of balancing supply and demand for roads during periods of congestion. We agree.
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The Queen's 'we?' You may agree, Mary, but as Secretary of Transportation, it might be better time spent for you to lobby for gas taxes to be shielded from political abuse.
The gas tax was never intended to reduce highway congestion, it was enacted to keep highways and bridges repaired. Selling off our roads to toll collectors is another nice little privatization of government, but it's easy to extrapolate the deregulation of airlines into a scenario for highway chaos.
If you are against crowded highways--and who isn't?--why not be a true Secretary of Transportation and come up with plans for viable public transportation?

* For more in-depth articles by Jim on Public Transportation, check out Opinion-Columns.com