Breaking the Gridlock on How We Pay for Roads

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, March 16, 2009

America's failure to build and repair the roads and rails it needs, says Robert D. Atkinson, is "emblematic" of the larger mess we're in: "We're a generation that has been irresponsible, and we're passing on a degraded capital asset to our children."

But after spending the past 24 months leading a congressionally mandated task force on transportation, Atkinson also has some good news: It's possible for Republicans and Democrats, through a process of respectful conversation and investigation, to form a genuine consensus. If that's "emblematic," maybe there's hope for Social Security and health-care reform, too.

Highway funding, after all, has become as encrusted in unyielding orthodoxies as any political issue. Almost no one disputes that Washington and the states, including Virginia and Maryland, have failed to deliver on the basic governmental responsibilities of ensuring mobility and enabling commerce. The number of miles Americans drive has essentially doubled since 1980 (cars up 97 percent; trucks, 106 percent), but the number of highway lane miles has grown only 4.4 percent. Result: twice as much traffic per road.

Yet Republican ideologues, including the recent Bush administration, have refused to acknowledge that taxes have to rise, or even keep pace with inflation. Democratic ideologues oppose any tolling or private investment. Green ideologues welcome anything that adds misery to driving and oppose anything that offers relief.

So the gas tax was raised modestly under Ronald Reagan and again in 1993, but not since. Americans pay half as much per mile driven today as in the 1960s. The Highway Trust Fund last year required a bailout from general revenue tax funds, and as people increasingly switch to other fuels, the gas tax will be increasingly inadequate as a user fee.

Whereas 20 years ago user fees -- gas taxes, tolls -- covered as much as 75 percent of the wear and tear on roads and other direct costs, today the ratio is down to 60 percent, Atkinson says. People are being subsidized to drive -- and that's before you even count the indirect costs of noise, traffic, wasted time and pollution.

"Basic economic theory tells us that when something valuable -- in this case roadway space -- is provided for less than its true cost, demand increases and shortages result," Atkinson's task force concluded. "Shortages in our road system are manifested as congestion."

So Congress created the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission to figure out what to do. It was stocked with Democrats (such as Atkinson, who heads the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation) and Republicans, gas tax people and toll people, bankers and mass-transit executives -- 15 members who started far apart but after hours of hearings, discussions and meetings ended up, in a recently released report, unanimous.

And here's what they said: Raise the gas tax now, by 10 cents from the current 18.4 cents per gallon. Then replace it entirely over the next decade or so with a system that would charge drivers a fee per mile driven.

In this new world, a GPS would be built into every car and truck. It would keep track of where you drove your car, and when, but the data would not be shared beyond the vehicle so privacy would be protected. It could be set to charge more per mile driven for Hummers than for Civics; more during rush hour than in the middle of the night; more for driving on congested bridges than on empty roads.

None of this is as far-fetched or futuristic as it may sound. Anyone who has stuck an E-Z Pass transponder on a windshield has taken a step in this direction. The Netherlands plans to implement a full vehicle-miles-traveled system by 2014, Denmark by 2016. In Holland, there won't even be a car registration fee; if you don't drive your car, you don't pay.

No one is proposing an immediate shift in this country. But, Atkinson says, Congress ought to fund research and pilot projects over the next five years.

Even that much is politically challenging. When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood alluded to the possibility last month, he was promptly rebuked by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who said "it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration."

But when the White House released its budget days later, its first promise on transportation was to find ways "to make the Nation's communities more livable and less congested, such as through road pricing." It's hard to keep a sensible idea down, in other words; vehicle-miles-traveled, after all, is the most logical and comprehensive form of road pricing. And if a bipartisan task force could figure this out, maybe, eventually, a divided capital can too.

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