Tag: highways

Making War on User Fees

The Highway Trust Fund hasn’t worked, says a new report from the Eno Transportation Foundation, so Congress should consider getting rid of it and funding all transportation out of general funds. In other words, the transportation system is breaking down because it has become too politicized, so we should solve the problem by making transportation even more political.

Eno (which was founded by William Phelps Eno, who is known as the “father of traffic safety”) claims this report is the result of 18 months of work by its policy experts. Despite all that work, the report’s conclusions would only make matters worse.

“The user pay principle works in theory,” says the report, “but has not worked in practice, at least as applied to federal transportation funding in the United States to date.” Actually, it worked great as long as Congress respected that principle, which it did from roughly 1956 through 1982. It only started to break down when Congress began diverting funds from highways to other programs. Then it really broke down when Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided to spend more from the Trust Fund than it was earning from user fees. (It made the decision to spend a fixed amount each year regardless of revenues in 1998, but spending only actually exceeded revenues starting around 2008.)

Some argue that such breakdowns in the user-fee principle are inevitable when politicians get involved. This suggests that the government should get out of the way and let user fees work again. But Eno ignores that idea, and simply dismisses user fees altogether.

Eno suggests Congress has three options:

  1. Adjust spending to revenues, either by raising gas taxes or reducing spending.
  2. Fund some things out of gas taxes and some things out of general funds (which is more-or-less the status quo).
  3. Get rid of the Highway Trust Fund and just fund all transportation out of general funds.

“Any of these ideas would represent a dramatic improvement over the existing system,” says Eno, which isn’t true since the second idea is, pretty much, the existing system. But “based on our analysis, solution 3 is at least worth exploring.”

Debunking the Induced-Demand Myth

“Building bigger roads actually makes traffic worse,” asserts Wired magazine. “The reason you’re stuck in traffic isn’t all these jerks around you who don’t know how to drive,” says writer Adam Mann; “it’s just the road that you’re all driving on.” If only we had fewer roads, he implies, we would have less congestion. This “roads-induce-demand” claim is as wrong as Wired’s previous claim that Tennessee fiscal conservatives were increasing Nashville congestion by banning bus-rapid transit, when actually they were preventing congestion by banning the conversion of general lanes to dedicated bus lanes.

In support of the induced-demand claim, Mann cites research by economists Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania. “We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” Mann quotes Turner as saying. Mann describes this relationship as, “If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.” If this were true, then building more roads doesn’t make traffic worse, as the Wired headline claims; it just won’t make it any better.

However, this is simply not true. Nor is it what Duranton & Turner’s paper actually said. The paper compared daily kilometers of interstate highway driving with lane kilometers of interstates in the urbanized portions of 228 metropolitan areas. In the average metropolitan area, it found that between 1983 and 1993 lane miles grew by 32 percent while driving grew by 77 percent. Between 1993 and 2003, lane miles grew by 18 percent, and driving grew by 46 percent.

That’s hardly a “perfect one-to-one relationship.”

Cut Saturday Mail to Fund Highways?

The Highway Trust Fund will be out of money in a few months, mainly because Congress insists on spending more than it takes in. To avert this supposed crisis, Republican leaders are proposing to cut Saturday deliveries of mail and use the savings to replenish the trust fund.

There’s actually a tiny grain of Constitutional sense behind this proposal. The original legal justification for federal involvement in highways, back when members of Congress actually cared about such things, was that the Constitution authorizes Congress “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” If the “post roads” aren’t paying for themselves, then who better to pay for them than the post offices?

In this sense, the Republican proposal is slightly more rational than President Obama’s proposal to use the increased revenues from a corporate income tax reform that will eliminate loopholes but reduce corporate tax rates. The administration predicts reducing rates will reduce corporate tax obligations in the long run but closing loopholes will increase revenues in the short run (interesting how Obama is promising corporations lower taxes after he is out of office in exchange for higher taxes when he is still in office). Obama wants to use some of those increased revenues to supplement the Highway Trust Fund.

More than offsetting the tiny Constitutional sense of the Republican proposal is that it will take ten years of Postal Service cuts in order to cover one year’s worth of red ink from the Highway Trust Fund. In other words, the plan is far from sustainable and will simply lead to another transportation cliff in a year or so.

Transportation Cliff or Pothole?

Recent news reports have zeroed in on Washington’s next “cliff,” the “transportation cliff” that is expected to happen when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money sometime this summer. Most of those articles have a hidden agenda: to increase spending for transit even though transit now gets 20 percent of federal surface transport dollars but carries little more than 1 percent of the travel carried by automobiles (about 55 billion passenger miles by transit vs. 4.3 trillion passenger miles in cars and light trucks). This post will explain some of the politics of the transportation cliff.

1. Why are we about to go off a transportation cliff?

Since 1956, federal highway programs have been financed with federal gasoline taxes. Those revenues go into the so-called Highway Trust Fund (“so-called” because it’s no longer very trustworthy) and then are distributed to the states for highway construction and maintenance. In 1982, Congress began dedicating a small but growing share of gas taxes to transit. Today, more than 20 percent of federal gas taxes are spent on transit, and there is no guarantee that the remaining 80 percent goes for highways, as Congress often diverts some of that money to such things as bike paths, national park visitor centers, museums, and other local pork barrel projects.

Congress reauthorizes this spending every few years. Traditionally, an authorization bill provides a spending ceiling. But the 2005 reauthorization bill made spending mandatory, meaning the ceiling was also the floor. (In 2012, Congress passed another reauthorization bill. That one didn’t mandate spending, but Congress went ahead and spent to the limit anyway, knowing full well that this would mean the Highway Trust Fund would be exhausted by sometime in 2014.)

When the 2008 financial crisis led to a reduction in driving, gas tax revenues failed to keep up with spending. Since then, Congress has had to supplement gas taxes with about $55 billion in general funds in order to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money.

Anti-auto interest groups often portray these supplements as highway subsidies. But they would not be necessary if Congress weren’t diverting 20 percent of gas tax revenues to transit. Although more money goes to highways than to transit, because highways are so much more heavily used, federal subsidies to transit are about 80 times as great, per passenger mile, as federal subsidies to highways.

VMT Fees Yes — V2V No

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it wants to require auto makers to include vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems in all new cars. Calling V2V “the next generation of auto safety improvements,” the agency says such devices would “improve safety by allowing vehicles to “talk” to each other and ultimately avoid many crashes altogether by exchanging basic safety data, such as speed and position, ten times per second.”

The government wants every vehicle on the road to transmit its location to every other nearby vehicle–as well as any other receivers that happen to be in range.

Supposedly, “the system as contemplated contains several layers of security and privacy protection.” However, privacy advocates should be far more suspicious of V2V than of electronic vehicle-mile fee systems. The big difference between them is that V2V by definition incorporates both a receiver and a transmitter, while it is possible to design vehicle-mile fee systems that do not include wireless transmitters. No transmitter means no invasion of privacy is possible; on the other hand, despite whatever privacy protection is included in V2V, a transmitter necessarily allows someone to receive the signal.

Perhaps the biggest argument against V2V is that it will soon be obsolete as a safety device, so mandating that it be included in cars adds an unnecessary expense to auto buyers. According to the NHTSA, V2V will “provide warnings to drivers so that they can prevent imminent collisions” but “not automatically operate any vehicle systems, such as braking or steering.” Yet many cars on the market today, such as the Ford Fusion shown above, do this and more solely with built-in radar or other sensors rather than V2V transmitters. Moreover, the occupants of such cars are safer even if no other car on the road has those sensors, which isn’t true of a V2V system.

The Ford Fusion is a mid-priced car that has numerous built-in radar sensors that can detect and warn drivers of potential collisions, even braking if necessary to avoid accidents–all without V2V transmissions.

Moreover, as contemplated by the NHTSA, V2V will not be mandated in cars before 2018 at the earliest. Yet the kind of self-driving cars that Nissan and other companies expect to have on the market by 2020 will use radar, infrared, lasers, or other means to detect all other vehicles on the road without transmitting any signals themselves. They would get no benefit from a wireless V2V system.

If systems that are already being included in more and more new cars work as well, if not better, than V2V, then why have V2V at all? It is worth noting that self-driving cars are coming from the private sector, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has expressed a go-slow attitude. Meanwhile, the push to mandate V2V comes from government agencies, both here and in Europe. I suspect governments are more interested in technologies that centralize transportation and communications, while private manufacturers are supporting technologies that promote decentralization.

In any case, it will be interesting to see if privacy groups protest this plan as loudly as they do proposals for vehicle-mile fees. Those who don’t may be using privacy concerns to cover their reluctance to paying the full cost of the roads they use. But, where VMT fees are an important step to using markets, rather than politics, to manage transportation systems, V2V is both a potential invasion of privacy and a waste of money.

Infrastructure Is Not the Problem

The sudden collapse of a 58-year-old bridge across the Skagit River in Washington state has led to renewed calls to spend more money on American infrastructure. But if that spending comes out of tax dollars rather than user fees and is dedicated to replacing bridges, it will be seriously misplaced.

The usual media hysteria followed the collapse. “Thousands of bridges around the U.S. may be one freak accident or mistake away from collapse,” screamed CBS News. “If just one of [New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge’s] structural elements gives way, the whole bridge could fall and send” hundreds of cars “tumbling into the Hudson River,” warned Business Week.

About 18,000 highway bridges (less than 3 percent of the total) built in the 1950s and early 1960s have what is now considered to be a design flaw that makes them “fracture critical.” This means that at least one major element does not have redundent support, so if that element gives way, the entire bridge could collapse. The Skagit River Bridge failed when an oversized truck that should not have been on the bridge hit a cross beam that lacked redundent support. “This does not mean the bridge is inherently unsafe, only that there is a lack of redundancy in its design,” says the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

To listen to the hype, you would think that bridges are failing on almost a daily basis. But put this into perspective: In 2012, more than 34,000 people died in traffic accidents. Virtually none of them died due to a fracture-critical bridge failure. We can do lots of things to make highways safer and reduce that 34,000. A crash program to replace thousands of bridges isn’t one of them and is likely to divert funds away from programs that are far more important.

Many of the stories about America’s infrastructure focus on the number of “structurally deficient” bridges, which (says AASHTO) doesn’t mean the bridges are unsafe but only that they require “significant maintenance and repair to remain in service.” What the stories rarely mention is that in the last two decades the number of structurally deficient bridges has declined by 44 percent, from more than 118,000 in 1992 to fewer than 67,000 in 2012, even as the total number of highway bridges increased from 572,000 to 607,000. The number of fracture-critical bridges has declined from 22,000 in the last four years alone. In other words, the problem is going away without the help of a giant new federal program.

Highway user fees, including federal and state gas taxes and tolls, fund nearly all construction and maintenance of state highways and bridges. The Skagit River Bridge notwithstanding, these roads and bridges tend to be in better shape than those that are locally owned, which need about $30 billion a year from property, sales, or other local taxes. User fees work better than taxes because the fees give highway managers signals about where to spend the money.

Speaker of the House John Boehner wants to dedicate oil and gas royalties to highway infrastructure. But that’s the wrong source of money and it will almost certainly be spent in the wrong places as as much if not most spending will be on glitzy projects that glorify the elected officials who appropriate the money rather than where it is really needed. For example, one sector hungry for more “infrastructure spending” is the rail transit industry, which since 1982 has automatically received a large share of all new transportation dollars. Yet rail transit does virtually nothing to relieve congestion or make our highways safer. Moreover, transit suffers from its own infrastructure crisis, mainly because it is funded mostly out of tax dollars that get spent on glamorous new rail lines rather than user fees that would be spent on maintenance.

Recent highway safety data reveal a striking 20 percent decline in fatalities between 2007 and 2010. This decline was associated with a mere 2.2 percent decline in driving, suggesting that–in the absence of the recession–a 2.2 percent increase in highway capacity and other congestion relief could have produced a similar decline in fatalities. Of the 41,259 fatalities in 2007, 13 were due to a bridge failure; there have been virtually none since then.

In short, the key to sound infrastructure is funding that infrastructure out of user fees rather than tax dollars. Since that’s true, one way to improve highway safety would be to develop a new system of user fees that local governments can tap into so that local as well as state highway engineers receive sufficient funds and the appropriate signals about where to spend money.

The Census Asks Too Much

Everyone in America, I presume, has just received a letter from the U.S. Census Bureau urging us to fill out our Census forms. Seems like a very expensive way to tell us to watch for the form to arrive in the mail. But I’m particularly interested in why they say we should promptly fill out the form:

Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of [federal] government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.

Obviously this is a zero-sum game. If my neighbors and I all fill out the form, then you and your neighbors will get less from the common federal trough. But at least we’ll be getting our “fair share,” as the letter tells us twice in three sentences.

But where does the government get the authority to ask me my race, my age, and whether I have a mortgage? In fact, the Constitution authorizes the federal government to make an “actual enumeration” of the people in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. That’s all. Not to define and count us by race. Not to ask whether we’re homeowners or renters. Just to ask how many people live here, so they can apportion congressional seats.

I’m not interested in getting taxpayers around the country to pay for roads and schools and “many other programs” in my community. All the government needs to know from me is how many people live in my house. And I will tell them.

More on the census and the Constitution here.