Even before Congress has reentered session, a dispute between incoming House Republicans and transportation organizations has erupted over changes to rules that limit how the Highway Trust Fund can be used in spending bills. The transportation industry claims the new rules will “sever the user-financed basis of the Highway Trust Fund” while Republican leadership says they are about limiting spending on transportation projects to the money that is available.
The keystone-premise common to both of these arguments relies on the gas-tax as a user fee. A new report by Florida Public Interest Research Group shows that this premise is a fallacy.
The amount of money a particular driver pays in gasoline taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by gas taxes. Drivers pay gasoline taxes for the miles they drive on local streets and roads, even though those proceeds are typically used to pay for state and federal highways. At its inception, the gas tax was originally intended for debt relief. Since then, the norm has been for gas taxes to fund other purposes in addition to roads.
The report buries the myth that building roads is fiscally conservative and that they “pay for themselves.” Highways do not – and, except for brief periods in our nation’s history, never have – paid for themselves through the taxes that highway advocates label “user fees.” According to a Pew study, user fees in 2007 covered only half the cost of building and maintaining the nation’s network of highways, roads and streets.
Since 2008, the nation’s Highway Trust Fund has been bailed out four times with $35 billion from general funds. The percent of roads paid for by gas taxes will only continue to drop as people drive less due to increased gas prices and as cars become more fuel efficient. Even if the gas tax keeps up with inflation, it will cover a dwindling fraction of surface transportation costs.
To make the right choices for our transportation future, the state and the nation need to weigh the full costs and benefits of its investments and then allocate the costs fairly. Florida needs to make difficult choices about how to fund our state’s troubled transportation system, and as today’s report makes clear, the first task is to discard common myths about how roads are paid for.
Patrick Gittard, Transportation Associate, Florida Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)
As you read this, congress is working to put together a $800 Billion+ Stimulus package to revive the nation’s economy. As JM noted earlier this week, the stimulus is more of the same bureaucratic stupidity we’ve all grown accustomed to - tax incentives for vehicle purchases, at least $30 Billion for Highways, and a paltry $12 Billion for real transit. Apparently some senators believe the transit allocation isn’t small enough and are trying to raid the transit allocations for increased highway spending. Apparently our senators have a short memory - already forgetting the woes of this past summer when our gasoline powered economy began to crumble under $4+ gas prices.
Together with T4America, we urge our readers to contact their US senators and let them know that this is unacceptable. Click here to find your Senator’s email address. Follow this link or the link on our new sidebar ->
According to the memo, they hope to cut $3.4 billion from public transit, but at the same time, are adding in more money for “additional transportation funding.” Presumably, if they’re cutting transit, that additional funding would go to roads. (It might be airports, I suppose, but I doubt it.)
They’re also cutting such items as Head Start, food stamps, child nutrition, firefighters, COPS hiring, NASA, and the CDC, while adding funding for defense operations and procurement.
The Senators reportedly in the room are Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mark Begich (D-AK), Tom Carper (D-DE), John Tester (D-MT), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Jim Webb (D-VA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Michael Bennett (D-CO), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mark Udall (D-CO), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Arlen Specter (R-PA), Mel Martinez (R-FL), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and George Voinovich (R-OH). We don’t know if all of them support these cuts or not (Carper is a big rail advocate, for example).
It gets worse. Earlier today, the U.S. Senate voted to accept, by a vote of 73-24, an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) which states, “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.”
Update: Via Bike Portland:
Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced an amendment last night that would prohibit funding of “bicycle routes” and paths from the economic stimulus package that’s working its way through Capitol Hill right now.
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