Funding highways: If it ain’t broke, fix it?

By Mike Joyce
OOIDA director of legislative affairs


There are many things that I could recommend changing in DC. In fact, not much is left in Washington that isn’t open to criticism these days. But I will defend one thing that has served its purpose well and that doesn’t need a whole lot of messin’ with: the federal fuel tax.

For more than 80 years, the motor fuel taxes have provided a user pay system that has generated an appropriate revenue stream for the construction of highway infrastructure. And for the foreseeable future, it remains the fairest, most effective, and most efficient way of providing revenue for our nation’s transportation needs.

We’ve all heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Transportation has decided to fix something that isn’t broken: the federal fuel tax.

The proposal is to replace it with tolls on highways – including existing highways that they would gladly convert to toll roads – along with the sale of existing roads to the private sector for mostly foreign investors to profit on our use. These tend to be sweetheart deals that give governors and state legislators a windfall up front. The burden will be placed on future generations who will read about these sellouts in history books and wonder, “What the hell were they thinking?”

Because the DOT didn’t get what it wanted from a commission that Transportation Secretary Mary Peters chaired, she will be back at it again when a second commission releases a report. That report will, most likely, recommend a diminished role for the federal government in transportation policy at a time when this role should probably be increasing.

This second commission is also likely to put a heavy emphasis on tolling and PPPs, and will make something called VMT (vehicle miles traveled) the cornerstone of its funding recommendation. Although a few pilot projects have analyzed whether or not VMT will be an effective way to collect user fees, much work needs to be done to match the success of the fuel tax model.

It is pie-in-the-sky thinking to believe that VMT is a system that could be implemented tomorrow. A seamless system that accounts for the privacy that drivers should be afforded will take years. We will hear much more about VMT in the coming days, weeks, months and years, as the trucking industry is going to be the proposed guinea pig for this method of tax collection.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, Washington must focus on reining in the irresponsible spending of the Trust Fund that broke it in the first place. LL