Why Your Highway Has Potholes

The Wall Street Journal
April 15, 2012

Americans don't want to live in Ray LaHood's car-free utopia.. 

Nothing shows off the worst of Congress like a highway bill. And this year's scramble for cash is worse than ever because the 18.4 cent a gallon gasoline tax will raise $70 billion less than the $263 billion Congress wants to spend over the next five years. Let the mayhem ensue. 

The Senate has passed a two-year $109 billion bill sponsored by Barbara Boxer of California that bails out the highway trust fund with general revenues, including some $12 billion for such nonessentials as the National Endowment for the Oceans and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The bill requires little or no reform. The prevailing Senate view is the more concrete that gets poured, the more jobs back home. So more "shovel-ready" nonstimulus. 

House Republicans oppose the Senate version amid a $1.3 trillion deficit and have their own bill to give states more flexibility--though still not enough--on how to spend transportation dollars. Congress had to pass a temporary 90-day extension of highway funding through June 30 because the two sides can't agree. 

What's missing is any new thinking. Clear evidence of inefficient transportation spending comes from a new Treasury study estimating that traffic gridlock costs motorists more than $100 billion a year in delays and wasted gas. In cities like Los Angeles, commuters waste the equivalent of two extra weeks every year in traffic jams. This congestion could be alleviated by building more highway lanes where they are most needed and using market-based pricing--such as tolls--for using roads during peak travel times. 

That makes too much sense for Washington. In a typical year only about 65 cents of every gas tax dollar is spent on roads and highways. The rest is intercepted by the public transit lobby and Congressional earmarkers. Then there are the union wages that pad the cost of all federal projects. The New York Times reported in 2010 that 8,074 Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees made $100,000 or more in 2009 even as the system loses money. 

Transit is the biggest drain. Only in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. does public transit account for more than 5% of commuter trips. Even with a recent 2.3% gain in bus and rail use due to high gas prices, public transit still accounts for a mere 2% of all inner-city trips and closer to 1% outside of New York. 

Since 1982 government mass-transit subsidies have totaled $750 billion (in today's dollars), yet the share of travelers using transit has fallen by nearly one-third, according to Heritage Foundation transportation expert Wendell Cox. Federal data indicate that in 2010 in most major cities more people walked to work or telecommuted than used public transit. 

Brookings Institution economist Cliff Winston finds that "the cost of building rail systems is notorious for exceeding expectations, while ridership levels tend to be much lower than anticipated." He calculates that the only major U.S. rail system in which the benefits outweigh the government subsidies is San Francisco's BART, and no others are close to break-even. 

One reason roads are shortchanged is that liberals believe too many Americans drive cars. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been pushing a strange "livability" agenda, which he defines as "being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car." This is the mind of the central planner at work, imagining that Americans all want to live in his little utopia. 

The current scheme also creates giant inequities. Politically powerful cities get a big chunk of the money, while many Western and Southern states get less back than they pay in. But why should people in Akron, Ohio or Casper, Wyoming have to pay gas taxes to finance the New York subway or light rail in Denver? One reason there is so much overspending on inefficient urban transit is that federal matching dollars require residents in other states to foot up to half the bill. 

The best solution would be to return all the gas tax money to the states, roughly in proportion to the money each pays in. This would allow states and localities to determine which roads and transit projects they really need--and are willing to pay for. California could decide for itself if it wants more roads, whether it can afford high-speed rail, and whether it wants to use congestion-pricing on crowded roads. The House Transportation Committee has found that getting a permit for a new road costs twice as much, and takes three times as long, when federal money is included than when financed with private or local dollars. 

Less federal control would also allow states to lure billions of dollars of private financing for new roads, which experts like Mr. Winston believe is the next big thing in transportation financing but is now generally prohibited. One of the worst features of Ms. Boxer's Senate bill is that she would exacerbate the funding shortage by adding new penalties if states leverage private dollars to build new toll roads and bridges. 

The Senate's highway-fund bailout will only perpetuate the spending misallocation that has contributed to traffic nightmares. It will also run up the deficit. If Congress really wants to enhance the livability of cities and suburbs, it will pass a highway bill that builds more roads.  

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