Short-term, yes. Solution, no.

From the Times:

> Gasoline tax revenue is falling so fast that the federal government may not be able to meet its commitments to states for road projects already under way, the secretary of transportation said Monday.

> The secretary, Mary E. Peters, said the short-term solution would be for the Highway Trust Fund’s highway account to borrow money from the fund’s mass transit account, a step that would balance the accounts as highway travel declines and use of mass transit increases. Both trends are being driven by the high price of gasoline and diesel fuel.

Got that? High gas prices are shifting people from cars into mass transit. The only appropriate response, clearly, is to rob the mass transit account to pay for highway projects.

Since we ran John McCain’s response to our gas tax petition a few weeks ago, it bears mentioning that McCain subsequently re-upped his call for a gas tax holiday. Recall that one of our objections to this meritless proposal was that suspending the gas tax would divert funds from needed road and bridge repairs. Now, even without the holiday, the highway account is predicted to hit zero sometime in the next fiscal year, prompting administration officials to eye that nice, plump mass transit budget.

Of course, the ostensible purpose of the gas tax holiday is to ease the economic burden on drivers, something that a gas tax holiday can’t actually accomplish, but mass transit might.

There is this hopeful bit buried at the bottom of the story:

> As for a longer-term solution, Ms. Peters said that on Wednesday she would propose a new arrangement for paying for highways, based in part on private capital financing and use of tolls that vary by time of day.

Mmm, congestion pricing. But isn’t this proposal going to raise the cost of driving? I thought the ne plus ultra of energy policy was cheap gas, now and forever. Perhaps the tide really is turning…

*Update:* Here’s a bit more on the long-term plan for replacing falling gas tax revenue. Although I’m not in favor of dropping the gas tax, the rest of the package sounds interesting — possibly good for the environment, our infrastructure, and taxpayers alike. It’s hard to say without knowing the details, but higher road tolls and more private investment certainly sounds like an experiment worth conducting.

Via Streetsblog.

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  1. Sean Chitwood - July 29, 2008

    I’m not usually paranoid about surveillance but listening to Ms. Peters talking about the possibility of getting how many people are in your car, how much you are carrying and keeping track of all of it’s movements on NPR this morning sent shivers down my spine.
    While usage fees are the way to go, I don’t want any administration to be able to know that much about my travel habits. And I also fear that it will be contracted out and the roads will stop being public space. Too much of “the commons” has been privatized.

  2. Dave - July 30, 2008

    Okay, but no mass-transit operation in the country pays for itself—not even close. So if the government wants to divert its charity slightly from mass transit to highways, what’s the big problem? Remember highways account for about 100 times as many passenger miles than transit.

  3. Howard Fuller - July 30, 2008

    Using a photo of “Galloping Gertie” to highlight the article’s premise is disengenuous at best. This bridge collapsed in the ’30s due to faulty engineering, not maintenance issues. That failure has nothing to do with the present maintenance issues and serves only as a “scare” illustration.
    In truth, if fewer vehicles are using the highways, less maintenance is required. The projects should either be scaled back to reflect reality or more funding be provided out of general revenues.
    Funding any of the infrastructure, whether it be rail or highway, by federal governmental entities guarantees that no economy of result is realized. Fuel taxes should go directly to the states and eliminate the Washington middleman.

  4. Adam Stein - July 30, 2008

    Picture was meant to be more whimsical than scary, but point taken. As this post is meant to be about the need to fund mass transit, I’ve replaced with a pretty picture of a subway car.

  5. Pam - July 30, 2008

    The silver lining of high gas/diesel price is that the focus (finally) begins to seriously shift to mass transit rather than the auto. As for a gas tax holiday, I’m with Senator Obama.

  6. D.C. - July 30, 2008

    Mr. Fuller posits “if fewer vehicles are using the highways, less maintenance is required.” However there is already a tremendous backlog in unfunded needs; a majority of the country’s bridges are not structurally sound, for example.

  7. Jeff - July 30, 2008

    The gas tax should be used to pay for air quality related issues created by vehicles (funding for MPO’s air quality conformity and CMAQ programs, for example).
    New road/transit construction should be paid for by general tax on the public (income tax).
    Highway/transit maintenance should be paid for by those that use the facility (rider fares, tolls, etc.).
    Congestion pricing should be used to mitigate congestion (fund emergency response services, mass transit, road improvements in the congested corridor, etc.).
    Why can’t taxes be used to pay for externalities?

  8. Howard Fuller - July 30, 2008

    I hate to say it, but this is the one area where I agree with Senator Obama as well. The fact that there are many projects out there in dire need of funding only points out my basic premise that the federal governments use of the tax funds is grossly inefficient. A bureaucracy that wastes money like the Transportation Department does should be held accountable and its funding reallocated to the individual states in areas like bridge and highway maintenance.
    John Kerry, when he was running for Senator, proposed a $2 tax on gasoline, which would have brought the price at that time to just under $3/gallon total. When he ran for the presidential nomination, though, he never even mentioned gasoline taxes. That’s why I didn’t vote for him. I wonder what our fuel consumption numbers would be now if he’d followed through? More importantly, would 9/11 and the Iraq War have ever happened? Would GM and Ford have switched their production to smaller, more efficient vehicles and kept the market share they had at the time? We can only wonder what if…? By the way, Adam, thanks for the photo swap. It looks much better now.

  9. Nick Pakulla - July 30, 2008

    Why were the roads even “public” in the first place? … hint: national defense…
    Look at power companies, I think most people can say that power is a neccessity, maybe moreso than driving, but the power companies are private. People have some sort of gut feeling that they “own” the road, and have a right to certain things when on it – such as not being tracked so other drivers can know road conditions. Well in a different world, none of that would be true.
    Just because we grew up with something doesn’t mean we deserve it. The highway system has been underfunded since about 15 years after it was built when the growth outpaced the planners plans… But therein lies the dilemma, build more roads, and they will fill, at some point people will not put up with the congestion, and will refuse to live in a certain area, or will demand alternatives.
    The government is not coming up with the money to fund the existing infrastructure so alternative funding sources need to be found. Private companies can take over, run more efficiently, and face less loopholes than those that exist when funding a “government funded” transportation project… for those of you in DC look at the Dulles Rail project, how much money has been wasted on that?
    Private companies can make smart business decisions and manage risk better.
    Maybe more people would be taking mass transit if the options were there, and there weren’t so many roads. Look at Europe, you can take a train just about anywhere.

  10. Howard Fuller - July 31, 2008

    Nick, you are absolutely correct regarding the European rail system. It is a delight to use. In the U.S., however, to achieve a comparable level of service would require a massive investment not only in infrastructure, but in the rail companies as well. It could be done, but would face opposition from both airlines and auto companies.
    Don’t forget that privately owned rail companies are the very entities that abandoned passenger service rather than compete with airlines. That’s why Amtrak was created in the first place. Privatization is not always the answer.
    Also, look at fuel taxes in Europe as being the driving force behind public transit passenger load factors. As long as we hold the fuel taxes down, we probably will not see the same result.

  11. badgerite - August 7, 2008

    Boy, you’re right that privatization is not always the answer! There are countless examples, the most recent being these private companies that are ripping us off in Iraq to the tune of billions of dollars as well as violating the human rights of so many.
    This idea that private companies always must be automatically presumed to do things better than the government is baseless.
    Private companies are just as prone to inefficiency, incompetence and greed as any government agency.
    The call to privatize things like highways comes down to this: let private companies, who are immune from the voters, take the heat for imposing tolls rather than have the politicians shorten their political careers by proposing that government impose taxes. But we pay a big price in accountability when we do that — just as we have seen in Iraq.