President Obama proposed an expansive spending plan for highways, transit, and other infrastructure in his 2016 budget.
Here are some of the problems with the president’s approach:
- Misguided Funding Source. The president proposes hitting U.S. corporations with a special 14 percent tax on their accumulated foreign earnings to raise $238 billion. This proposal is likely going nowhere in Congress, and it is bad economic policy. The Obama administration seems to view the foreign operations of U.S. companies as an enemy to be punished, but in fact foreign business operations generally complement U.S. production and help boost U.S. exports.
- Increases Spending. The Obama six‐year transportation spending plan of $478 billion is an increase of $126 billion above current spending levels. Instead of increasing federal spending on highways and transit, we should be cutting it, as it is generally less efficient that state‐funded spending. To close the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) gap, we should cut highway and transit spending to balance it with current HTF revenues, which mainly come from gas and diesel taxes.
- Increases Central Control. The Obama plan would increase federal subsidies for freight rail and “would require development of state and regional freight transportation plans,” according to this description. But freight rail has been a great American success story since it was deregulated by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. So let’s not reverse course and start increasing federal intervention again. Let’s let Union Pacific and the other railroads make their own “plans;” we don’t need government‐mandated plans.
- Undermines User Pays. For reasons of both fairness and efficiency, it is a good idea to fund infrastructure with charges on infrastructure users. In recent decades, the HTF has moved away from the original user‐pays model of gas taxes funding highways, as funds have been diverted to mass transit, bicycle paths, and other activities. Obama would move further away from user pays, both with his corporate tax plan and with his proposed replacement of the HTF with a broader Transportation Trust Fund.
- Expands Mass Transit Subsidies. The Obama plan would greatly increase spending on urban bus and rail systems. But there is no proper federal role in providing subsidies for such local activities. Indeed, federal transit subsidies distort efficient local decision making—the lure of “free” federal dollars induces local politicians to make unwise and wasteful choices. Arlington, Virginia’s million‐dollar bus stop is a good example.
For background on the transportation battle heating up in Congress, see my articles here and here. And see the writings of Randal O’Toole, Robert Poole, Emily Goff, and Ken Orski.
And you can check out the writings of Robert Puentes of Brookings, who joined me on C‐Span today to discuss these issues.