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Highway Trust Fund Injustice

Highway Trust Fund Injustice

3 Mins
July 16, 2014

The US federal government is holding one of its periodic debates about highway funding. President Obama says that the federal highway trust fund, which is primarily funded by gasoline taxes paid by

Light rail construction in Arizona: this is what motorists are forced to pay for.

motorists, will soon run out. The House has pushed through a jury-rigged fix to keep funds flowing , and, by August, the Senate is expected to approve it.

The president and the New York Times editorial board say the problem is that the gas tax is too low: it hasn’t risen enough to keep up with economic growth and inflation.

What they aren’t mentioning is that the gas tax funds are actually still pretty adequate for highway and road projects: the problem is that over 20 percent of the fund these days doesn’t go for roads and highways at all. Instead, as Randall O’Toole at Cato regularly points out , these funds are spent on bus and rail transit, and sometimes on other pork-barrel goodies, like museums.

So there is an easy way for Congress to shore up the highway trust fund: stop forcing motorists to pay for non-motorists’ transit.

Over 20 percent of the fund isn't spent on roads or highways.

In fact, here’s an idea: How about if transit riders pay for their own services? They buy tickets, after all. Why can’t tickets cover the costs of the trains and buses?  Inter-city buses and airplanes are covered by ticket costs. Urban transit buses and trains could be, too.

A full, free market in transportation would be best, with no taxes or subsidies. Highways could be toll roads, and in fact, with today’s RFID technology (like EZ-Pass), it’s not hard to charge road users for exactly what roads they use. So it’s never been easier to privatize the roads.

But in the meantime, while the government runs the roads, the gas tax is a pretty good user fee. Those who drive more tend to pay more. In fact, heavier vehicles, which do more damage to roadways, pay more, too, because they typically use more gas per mile. (Electric cars and high-efficiency hybrids complicate the matter, but I didn’t say gas taxes were perfect, just pretty good.)

It’s simple justice that the people who use the roads should pay for the roads. And it’s simple justice that they shouldn’t have to pay for bus riders and train passengers’ commutes: transit riders should pay for their own services.

Yet since 1982, the federal government has been sucking more and more funds out of the highway trust fund to pay for transit. Behind this pillaging are two immoral and pernicious ideas.

The first nasty idea is plain old collectivism: it holds that (somehow) the motorists and the transit riders are the same people in the same respect: all part of the collective. “People in both parties ride in cars or take trains and buses,” notes the Times : so it doesn’t matter that the motorists are being robbed. Since we are all part of the collective, anyone can be taxed to pay for anyone else’s benefits.

But the real reason Congress is sticking it to the motorists is environmentalism. Cars, it is assumed, are evil, polluting vehicles that promote wasteful living. Buses and trains are less-polluting, more modest means of getting around. And why shouldn’t people be free to choose their mode of transportation, if they’ll bear the costs? Environmentalism, when you get right down to it, holds that humans don’t have a right to their lives .

It’s bad enough when justice is plainly ignored in making government policy. It’s worse when anti-man ideas are moving the needle as well.

Congress should fix the highway fund by cutting off transit projects now. And for the long term, it should move transportation to a private, user-pays system that will encourage the best technologies and allow individuals to live as they judge best—and pay for it themselves.

William R Thomas is Director of Programs at The Atlas Society.


Sam Kazman, " Automobility and Freedom ," Navigator, September, 2001.

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