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Reason For Radical Transportation Funding

For decades he's been in the thick of transportation policy. He's authored books and studies, advised four presidential administrations, and he serves


For decades he's been in the thick of transportation policy. He's authored books and studies, advised four presidential administrations, and he serves as the director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at the Reason Foundation. Robert Poole calls for us to completely rethink how we spend federal transportation dollars in a plan dubbed Interstate 2.0.

How much money would Interstate 2.0 need?

By reprioritizing the money coming in from the existing gasoline and diesel and other transportation excise tax, they could add $10 billion per year to what is currently being spent on the interstate program. Government is way overextended in every area. It would be very healthy for the country to focus on a large-scale modernization of the interstate system, let the states handle the other highways, and let the local governments handle the other programs.

How did you come up with $10 billion?

I went into the various data from the Federal Highway Administration and looked at where all the federal dollars are going. I isolated everything that is nonhighway. Transit is getting about 20%. Another 5% is being spent on programs like transportation enhancements, bike paths, recreational trails, and transportation museums ó some of which don't have anything to do with transportation.

How will states pay for their roads?

We wrestled a lot with that question. An easy answer is raise their taxes. We know that's difficult. We recommend putting in place thresholds for benefit-cost requirements. Fund only projects that can pass a benefit-cost ratio of 1.5. That is going to weed out poorly justified projects done for political reasons. Secondly, use tolling and public-private partnerships. The case for increases in fuel tax would be much stronger if they first show they were doing everything they could to spend the existing money wisely.

Does the administration or Congress back this plan?

The administration is perfectly willing to say we should spend money on maintaining the highway capacity that we have. There are essentially no commitments whatever to adding highway capacity. The new freight program the administration seems favorable to is all about spending federal money on ports and rail ó on profit-making railroads that have always paid for their own infrastructure. We have had a number of promising discussions with some House Republicans ó staffers as well as members.

Where will the opposition come from?

It will come from those who see highway funding as the pot of gold that they want to spend on everything but highways. That includes the transit interests, the smart-growth interests, and the bicycle people. All of these groups have gradually gotten straws in the punchbowl. The premise on which this was sold to the American taxpayer was that this would be strictly a user-pay, user-benefit concept. Each time Congress reauthorizes it, they carve out more of the money for nonhighway purposes. Those groups now have a vested interest in the status quo and actually want it to be bigger.

Does the plan address falling gas-tax revenue?

The country needs to begin the transition from the fuel tax to a charge per mile traveled. While we still have the fuel tax, it is important to strengthen the idea of it being a user-pay, user-benefit mechanism. That's the basis on which we should construct the new VMT charge. It should not become the new all-purpose punchbowl that everybody has a claim to. We want to fight this battle now before we get into that transition, so that we don't short-change highways.

When will we see a transportation bill?

I talk to a lot of people in Washington, and the general consensus is that the most likely time would be sometime in the spring, after the new Congress is settled in and before things get too far along in the presidential campaign. I've heard some say that if it doesn't happen by next spring, it probably won't happen until after the presidential election. It is very sad news for transportation. If the Democrats retain control of both houses, we will see a scaled-back version of something like Oberstar's bill. It wants to transform the program from one of federal assistance to state transportation programs to one of a federal transportation program that the states are directed to carry out.