Monday, April 15, 2013

Federal Transportation Funding in Jeopardy?

The graph shared in class lecture illustrating VMT trends in the U.S. has many researchers wondering whether the dropping numbers will become a lasting trend or just a blip in a long term continual rise of miles driven. If this trend continues, many supporters of alternative transportation will be elated. However, it is important to realize that there also may be negative consequences and issues that arise if this trend were to continue.

The primary funding mechanism for federal transportation funds continues to be the gasoline tax. Having been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993 despite inflation, with very little hope that this number will be raised, this current transportation funding system depends on the continued use of gasoline. Fuel efficiency standards continue to push the automobile makers to create vehicles that consume less and less fuel with each year’s new models. This in turn results in dropping fuel consumption over time. Add to this the potential for people to be traveling fewer miles annually, and the gasoline tax as we know it seems doomed if it is not eventually raised significantly. This could have drastic effects on our ability to invest in bicycle, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure to help aid a shift away from automotive travel.  In addition to the inability to invest in these alternative modes of transportation, the federal government is already struggling to maintain its existing road network. Whatever the future of transportation funding is for this country, now is the time to figure it out. Letting infrastructure decay further and funding dwindle even farther may create major challenges for the country to overcome in the future. 

Here is one argument for/against continuing to make the gas tax the primary federal transportation funding mechanism:

Please provide me with feedback about this topic and suggestions of things to explore further, as I plan to use this topic for one of my Op-Eds for this class! Thanks!

Written By Darwin Moosavi, Edited by Matt Berggren 


  1. I find it so strange that both Davis and Poole are so fixated on making sure the funds from the taxes go towards making travel better and smoother for drivers. Haven't we realized that that has been our problem? The more money and time we spend on making driving smoother, faster and easier, the longer we will have to wrestle with this energy dependence. Perhaps we start viewing the tax for what it should be: a disincentive to drive. Yes, that would mean that the revenue from the tax would drop even more, but if less people are driving, then maintenance and new facility requirements would drop as well. And by focusing the funds on bicycle/pedestrian/mass transit projects, we'll find that a mile of highway for cars far exceeds the cost for a mile of bike lanes, sidewalks, and public transit facilities. I know that can be seen as a very idealist way of looking at the situation, but I can't bring myself to see the point in arguing about which tax policy will dig us deeper into this hole and why that's a good thing. Also, do we rule out taxing electric cars in addition to regular cars (not sure if we already do)? I mean, they're better than gasoline engines but they still run on energy (gas, coal, wind, solar, hydro, etc), all of which contribute to environmental degradation.

  2. I like the idea of a VMT fee plus some sort of up front tax/fee based on fuel economy/emissions. I think a lump sum up front would have a bigger impact on purchasing decisions. What to do with the used car market? I'm not sure. Maybe they'd be charged a pro-rated amount. Increased fuel or VMT fees are likely to have a negative equity impact--something that would be tricky to address.

    I understand the risk of moving bike/ped & transit funding out of the highway trust fund, but I think it's time to make the move. The HTF is sinking, and there's no reason for non-auto modes to go down with the ship!

  3. @Haley: "Yes, that would mean that the revenue from the tax would drop even more"

    Actually it might not! Even in the long-run, fuel and VMT demand seem to be pretty inelastic (not that responsive to price). In that case, tax revenue would actually rise with a tax rate increase. More money and fewer miles driven would be a good deal. We might use some of the excess to soften the mobility loss for those unable to pay the new rates. Of course, there would be questions about whether the elasticities would hold if tax rates were raised a large amount or collected in a different way.


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