Transportation Policy

Transportation Bill (Including Ex-Im Resurrection) Is Everything That's Terrible About Congress

This is what happens when you politicize infrastructure, instead of letting users pay for it

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Not brought to you by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act! ||| Etsy
Etsy

July 31 is a date with significance beyond being the Major League Baseball trading deadline, and the birthdays of Milton Friedman, J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and the author of this blog post. It's also the day that the Highway Trust Fund—the tank of federal money filled by the gas tax and ostensibly disbursed on maintaining the interstate highway system—runs out.

The Trust Fund runs out every year at this time, because Congress spends more of it than the gas tax brings in, and is too incompetent and/or terrified to either spend less, tax more, or allow for enough private-sector financing to cover the infrastructure shortfall. Even though federal transportation taxing-and-spending levels are supposed to be set in mammoth six-year legislative packages, what ends up happening instead is that Congress at the last minute finds some heretofore undeployed bandaid—say, the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund—to slap on the problem for another 12 months. Democrat-dominated, divided, Republican; the control of Congress does not matter here. This dysfunction and cowardice is what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is referring to when he says stuff like this:

The original Bridge to Nowhere. ||| Yelp
Yelp

I think it's a crummy way to run government. I think that lurching from deadline to deadline, showing up with two thousand page bills, nobody reads them, stuff gets stuck in by people in the dead of night, nobody has any idea what's in there, and they put stuff in there that's complicated and people should have a discussion. It should be transparent and the bottom line is the result's pretty poor. We have an $18 trillion debt, so I'm absolutely opposed to just the process itself and so I'm a no vote.

Paul in that case was talking about the already memory-holed "cromnibus" bill of last December, but the insight is transferable to the wretched way Congress has dealt with this week's Trust Fund deadline, including last night's initial Senate attempt to resurrect the righteously shuttered crony-capitalist machine known as the Export-Import Bank.

Good luck sorting through the parliamentary details of what the Senate will do next to try and jam through a transportation bill this week before the House (which previously passed a six-month extension) goes on August recess, though you can bet that we'll see the issue cross-pollinate with such wholly unrelated issues as the Ex-Im, and Planned Parenthood funding, and Obamacare, and God knows what else (including, possibly, giving the IRS power to revoke the passports of citizens owing more than $50,000 in back taxes).

The man, the myth, the legend. ||| Washington Post
Washington Post

What would a sane highway policy look like? Read the June 17 congressional testimony from Reason Foundation Director of Transporation Policy Robert Poole, titled "Rethinking the Highway Trust Fund." Here's the bullet-point summary:

1. Preserve and strengthen the users-pay/users-benefit principle on which the HTF was founded, and which remains the basis for most state highway programs.

2. Set meaningful priorities for the Highway Trust Fund, to balance spending with existing revenues.

3. Encourage state efforts to develop mileage-based user fee models that address the many current unknowns and concerns over this proposed transition.

4. Give states improved tools to make their existing transportation funding go further.

Last week, Poole also unveiled a relevant new study titled "Truck-Friendly Tolls for the 21st Century"; you can also read his recent article for the magazine, "Who's Going to Pay for New Highways?" That latter piece includes an important historical reminder that shouldn't get lost during the grotesque sausage-making on Capitol Hill this week: Namely, the Highway Trust Fund is being spent on all kinds of things that have nothing to do with highways. Check it out:

In 1982, the floodgates opened for spending highway funds on public transit. Highway advocates and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis wanted to double the gas tax, but President Ronald Reagan said he would veto such a bill….[U]rban mayors came to the rescue, persuading their members to support the legislation if 20 percent of the 5-cent-per-gallon increase was dedicated to mass transit. The revised bill passed and Reagan signed it.

Each successive reauthorization of the program since 1982 has expanded it further, eviscerating the original users-pay/users-benefit principle by spending "highway user tax revenue" on a large array of other purposes: transit capital and operating costs, sidewalks (Safe Routes to School), bike lanes (Complete Streets), recreational trails, landscaping, highway safety grants, environmental mitigation, historic pre­servation, etc. This all-things-to-all-people approach enables members of Congress to get credit for funding things that appeal to many constituent groups.

Last Tuesday I watched Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a New York Times "Cities for Tomorrow" event express bewilderment at Congress's inability to deal with the Highway Trust Fund in one breath, and then a few minutes later brag about how we're spending so much of that money on transit and non-highway projects! Why, it's as if the people who agitate for more government money are genuinely surprised that the management thereof becomes politicized.

In a very related development, some of the biggest laugh-lines during Foxx's transportation panel came at the expense of the sheer awfulness of New York's (Port Authority-owned) airports, and at the way public transportation projects around these parts tend to go just a wee bit over budget. But accepting those facts with a laugh and a shrug is an important part of the problem in the first place. Governments at all levels, and blue cities in particular, cannot do infrastructure right, in large part because the coalitions that elect politicians around these parts treat construction and maintenance and contracts and taxes like the mafia does: as guaranteed revenue streams to maximize.

Instead of confronting that problem head-on, politicians such as President Barack Obama just keep portraying the infrastructure gap as a failure of will, rather than a willful lack of desire to account for the billions already spent. Rather than process the detailed suggestions from pragmatic limited-government types, partisans blame the potholes in Democrat-dominated cities on powerless libertarians. We will not be able to maintain, let alone build, any infrastructure of significance, until these fantasies give way to something approaching policy realism.

Don't expect that any time soon, either from Congress or Anthony Foxx. Here's a recent pep talk from your Transporation Secretary's blog:

we know how to build this stuff, how to fix what we have and make the system better able to handle what's coming.

It's time to do what previous generations did.  Find the mettle.  Find the resolve.

Because if we don't dig in today, our children and grandchildren will be digging out tomorrow.

No, we don't know how to build this stuff anymore, is the issue. And until Congress finds the resolve to tackle that problem, they shouldn't get a drop more of our money.

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  1. Yeah, but the *real* story is that Ted Cruz said something unflattering about McConnell, violating Senate collegiality.

    Of course, Senate collegiality means screwing the public, but you’re not supposed to notice that part.

    1. Have you no sense of decorum, sir?

      1. But you can’t hold a whole party responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole two,party system? And if the whole two party system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our political institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!

        1. +1 Toga Party

      2. I didn’t get a harrumph outta that guy!

    2. Correct. Politicians must remember at all times who is with who. Should the ruling class start forgetting they’re in business strictly to subjugate and enslave the rest of us and they won’t be in the subjugating and enslaving the rest of us business for long.

  2. Um. Trump is NOT in the Senate. WHERE IS MY TRUMP RATION FOR TODAY??!!

    1. I know! We can call it a “Trumpsportation Bill”.

      Who’s with me??!!

    2. The Evening Lynx is forthcoming…

      1. Alas! It is my final hope for the day!

    3. In protest, everyone with hair can do a combover.

      1. ::sadly slinks away::

      2. Wow, your cis-follicled approach really othered me, a comb-over challenged, near chrome domer! YOU BASTARD!

        *runs away crying*

        1. I apologize for my many micro aggressions and… ok, not really, because I’m a heartless glibertarian.

          1. …with hair.

  3. 3. Encourage state efforts to develop mileage-based user fee models that address the many current unknowns and concerns over this proposed transition.

    That is making a fetish out of fairness. The privacy cost of using millage based tax models is too great to justify whatever benefits it gives. If you are worried that electric vehicles are not paying their share, stop subsidizing them and tax the hell out of their purchase.

    More importantly, the feds need to leave the states alone and let then fund their highways however they want to do so and not be encouraging anything other than pay for it.

    1. I think the gas tax is a reasonable proxy for this, but an annual mileage tax wouldn’t be a big deal either. You can sample the traffic load along each stretch and portion out the total revenues by usage. Aside from knowing how many miles you drove annually there’s no other tracking information to be abused. Tolls are potentially more intrusive but also potentially more accurate.

      The concern I have with Poole’s previous recommendations is that they amount to a massive increase in the effective gas tax. I recall it being something like $0.03/mile which works out to nearly $1/ga for a ~30mpg vehicle. It also doesn’t capture the effect of vehicle weight as well. So it potentially acts as a tax cut for heavier vehicles and a tax increase for lighter cars. A 10mpg truck would end up paying $0.30/ga (and 10miles) while a lighter car would pay nearly $1/ga. And what’s more perverse is that the truck is actually damaging the road more than the car is.

      Oh, and electric vehicle owners should be taxed the equivalent to a similar vehicle weight gas vehicle on an annual basis.

      1. The problem with an milage tax is that the buttinskis in the government will want to install black boxes, lest somebody cheat somehow. And then they will find ALL KINDS of reasons to use the available information, although they will have promised not to.

        The problem with making the users pay, is the there seems (I think there’s a PhD dissertationin this) to be a pattern whereby primary users of networks (like railroads and rural electrification) are unwilling to pay what a wholly private concern would have to charge to make a,profit, but a little public support pays dividends to society as a whole.

        1. I agree that tracker boxes are the most likely way government would implement this, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s my only point.

          If they won’t pay, then the service shouldn’t exist.

  4. 3. Encourage state efforts to develop mileage-based user fee models that address the many current unknowns and concerns over this proposed transition.

    This is missing something along the lines of “while simultaneously guaranteeing the right of motorists to drive where they please without government tracking or other measure to record their comings and goings”.

    1. Well, we would stop spying on you through your mandated mileage tracker device, but this has become an indispensable tool for law enforcement! Without it, women and children will be hit hardest… why do you want the terrorists to win?

      1. At this point, I almost want the terrorists to win.

        1. Does that make you a nihilist?

          1. A niljadist.

            1. nihjadist

              1. nihadist
                beat-dead-horse.gif

        2. I’m feeling you man.

    2. First you say you don’t want the government tracking your movements, now you say you don’t want your movements tracked by the government. MAKE UP YOUR MINDS.

  5. But the bill says “for other purposes,” OTHER PURPOSES!!! So why so mad, J. Q. Public?

    /congresscritter

    1. IOW: “you’re already bent over. May as well let us jam this thing in your ass.”

      1. Look at the dress – he was practically BEGGING for it!

      2. -“IOW: “you’re already bent over. May as well let us jam this thing in your ass.””

        Feels more like “All of you at once? Really!? Well, since I don’t have a choice, at least try to keep a rhythm.”

        Alt- “Black guys help the white guys.”

  6. 3. Encourage state efforts to develop mileage-based user fee models that address the many current unknowns and concerns over this proposed transition.

    Fuck you. I already pay too much in income taxes, sales taxes, gas taxes, property taxes and myriad other taxes. Now you want to make me pay even more because I drive 4-5k miles a month while unproductive shitheels are sucking off the contributions I am forced to pay so they can enjoy the roads as well? I repeat: fuck you.

      1. Amen, too.

    1. It’s a usage fee. It’s far better than using the general fund to pay for roads. You use it, so you should pay for it.

      Now if you want to talk about all of the other shit the money is being wasted on including transit, well, amen, brother.

      1. That’s exactly the problem: It’s a user’s fee that’s been wasted on other things. Bike paths, high speed rail studies, alternative energy projects, historic preservation, light rail construction ….. none of this should be funded with funds from the HTF.

  7. “Who’s Going to Pay for New Highways?”

    Fannie and Freddie through G fees with costs passed along to homeowners? what do I win?

    1. “Who’s Going to Pay for New Highways?”

      Every person that makes more money than the ones we have to give free shit to to ensure a majority.

      1. So, SOP.

  8. I’m starting to actually fancy the Somalian model for road funding and building.

    1. Shoot AK47s in the air until someone builds a road?

      1. That’s about as good as the model we have now.

        1. Way more fun, too.

      2. Just drive around the IED craters and make a new one; if not and you roll over, the neighborhood defence force (Trolls for Tolls) will have a new barrier and can charge extra!

  9. Just get rid of the federal gas tax and let the states reset theirs and care of the roads,problem solved.Oh,and when they talk about road funding they always forget to add in the state taxes,which,are mostly (maybe all ) higher.Many much higher.

    1. BUT MUH ROADZZZ!!!

      /Montanan

  10. “July 31 is a date with significance beyond ..the birthdays of…the author of this blog post.”

    All the Reason interns get to give Matt 40-something dead-arms apiece? That must be fun.

  11. The way this works is the government takes our road maintenance funds, then it tells us it will give some back as a gift for every dollar of our remaining dollars we spend on government approved projects like local bus system grants, bike paths, walking trails, new roads, and sidewalks. So we spend all of our road maintenance funds on local bus system grants, bike paths, walking trails, new roads, and sidewalks while our roads rot from lack of maintenance. That allows government to say we aren’t paying enough to maintain our infrastructure, cheap bastards that we are, and so taxes must be raised. Those new funds are now spent matching more money spent on local bus system grants, bike paths, walking trails, new roads, and sidewalks.

    1. This.

      I’m okay with paying more at the pump to improve roads in my area (I am sort lying since I live in California but you get the idea); however, I know that what our fearless leaders will do is tax me even more for a purpose the money wont be used for. Then in another couple of years we will have to play the same game. The problem isn’t the highway fund, its a bunch of elected leaders and bureaucrats running the country in a manner that is at best classified as irresponsible.

    2. And …. my personal favorite …. high speed rail studies. There’s no funding method proposed which will pay for the construction and maintenance, so the politicians just conduct studies.

  12. There already is a “mileage-based user fee” – its called a gas tax. The more miles you drive. the more gas you burn, the more tax you pay… brilliantly simple. Some vehicles that pollute less get a subsidy under this ” mileage-based user fee.” This is a feature, not a bug.

    Replacing the current ” mileage-based user fee” with a more complicated, more intrusive version of a ” mileage-based user fee” is a really bad idea. Bob Poole should know better.

    1. The bureaucracy loves the idea of mileage based tax. We would need more bureaucrats to do the work necessary to keep track of all the miles that people drive. While they’re at it, they can also keep track of WHERE people are driving. That way we can all be kept more safe from terrorism.

  13. One problem is that the bureaucrats, cronies and other special interests line of for miles to get their fill at the trough. They all want to get their fair share of those “highway dollars.”

  14. So if the Trust Fund wasn’t being used for transit, etc., would there be enough to fund the highway system?

    1. According to Poole’s report, no. Buried on page 24 of the report:

      If a full (federal plus state) rebate of diesel taxes were available for all miles driven on the replacement Interstate 2.0 facilities, the cost per mile would be almost double the current fuel tax rate.

      The same appears to be true of gas taxes at $0.035/mi.

      He makes a point of saying that far less than half of the fuel tax dollars actually go to roads and bridges, but it’s up to the reader to figure out what the gap would be if they were properly allocated. Let’s say it is half and now, properly allocated, the rates need to double again. That implies that the current gas tax is about 1/4 of that required to fund the new system. You would have to subtract out the improvements such as added lanes to get at what is required to just maintain the existing system.

      1. It’s probably worth noting that in the commuter society we have developed so everyone can own a house doubling or tripling the gas tax doubling could have a serious impact on the economy. I’m not suggesting the government should factor this in, but I am suggesting that the second and third order affects should be discussed.

        Europeans like their free health care and Americans like their suburbia.

  15. We had this whole problem solved fifty years ago. But no!

    Instead of flying cars Eisenhower had to go and build the Interstate Highway system.

    1. IDK, my flying car is pretty inefficient, maybe 20 MPG, max.

  16. Why are people proposing plans for more/new/different taxes?! This is insanity. Why don’t we just get some less stupid f-heads to run it and manage the budget/revenue they already take in.

  17. And until Congress finds the resolve to tackle that problem, they shouldn’t get a drop more of our money.

    So you are advocating that people refuse to pay your taxes?

    Wouldn’t that be against the law, and therefore be an offence for which those people who did as your advocated could be fined and/or jailed?

    1. Sheesh!

      …your taxes?..

      I meant THEIR taxes.

  18. The silliest part of the scope issue is the definition of “highway”. These projects are a whole lot more than interstate highways. Many of the projects funded by the bill are for what people would call local arterial roads. Why is the federal government the funder of local projects? Why can’t NY, Chicago, LA, and most other localities figure out their own priorities and fund them locally?

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    1. The whole problem could be solved if we would just force people like catherine626 to pay their fair share in taxes. I don’t know how far cathy drives in a given period of time but she is knocking down $8596 per mo and we should be making that bitch pay for EVERYTHING!

  21. “And until Congress finds the resolve to tackle that problem, they shouldn’t get a drop more of our money.”

    Amen! Where’s the accounting of all the money spent on non-highway infrastructure? Now, we can only hope the fiscal conservatives in the US House will have the balls to stand pat.

  22. The Ex-Im Bank is far from a “crony-capitalist machine”. It’s a vital source of financing for exports, especially of expensive items such as aircraft, and allows U.S. manufacturers to compete on a more level playing field with foreign competition. It also MAKES money so get over your dogma and think rather than react.

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