Briefing Paper No. 116

The Citizens’ Guide to Transportation Reauthorization

Sometime in 2010 or 2011, Congress expects to decide how to spend the $250 billion or more of federal gas taxes and other highway user fees that will be collected over the next six years. The process of doing so is called surface transportation reauthorization. A major point of contention in this law is how much of our transportation system should be centrally planned and how much should be built and operated in response to the needs of actual transportation users.

Advocates of top-down planning want to reduce per capita driving by providing disincentives to automobiles, such as increased congestion and driving costs, and funding expensive alternatives such as high-speed rail and rail transit. Even if you believe in the goal of reducing per capita driving, the evidence indicates that these tools have minimal effect on driving and may even be environmentally counterproductive.

Advocates of customer-driven transportation want to fund transportation out of user fees, not taxes, and make transportation providers— whether public agencies or private parties— responsive to the needs and desires of those users. Decades of experience have proven that the best way of reducing the environmental costs of transportation is to use new technologies to reduce the impacts per mile of mobility, not to reduce mobility itself. This citizens’ guide presents the basic facts behind these two views.

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Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the forthcoming book, Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.