A New Transportation Federalism

Ken Orski writes:

Why Pleas to Increase Infrastructure Funding Fall on Deaf Ears
Letting the nation’s roads and bridges deteriorate may worsen traffic congestion and add to our commuting woes, but when water and sewer systems begin to fail our very civilization is at risk. That is the message of a recent story in The Washington Post drawing attention to the alarming state of the nation’s water and sewer infrastructure. The story looks at the Washington D.C. system as a poster child for neglected and dilapidated municipal utilities. The average age of the District water pipes is 77 years and a great many were laid in the 19th century, notes the Post article. Emergency crews rush from site to site to tackle an average of 450 breaks a year. (“Billions needed to upgrade America’s leaky water infrastructure,” by Alfred Halsey III, January 2, 2012).

I agree with almost all of it. Interestingly, he cites Charles Lane writing in the Washington Post: The U.S. infrastructure argument that crumbles upon examination:

So how come my family and I traveled thousands of miles on both the east and west coasts last summer without actually seeing any crumbling roads or airports? On the whole, the highways and byways were clean, safe and did not remind me of the Third World countries in which I have lived or worked. Should I believe the pundits or my own eyes?
For all its shortcomings, U.S. infrastructure is still among the most advanced in the world — if not the most advanced. I base this not on selective personal experience but on the same data alarmists cite.

Well, my eyes, and the vibration in my vehicle, and my tripping when walking, tell me that infrastructure is crumbling here in Minnesota. That is not to say the system is not a marvel, it obviously is, and that it is better than many less developed countries, which is also quite true. It is simply to say Mr. Lane should come visit, e.g. Franklin Avenue east of the Mississippi River, or entrance ramps onto I-94, and tell me lots of local and even some interstate system infrastructure is not crumbling. It is drivable, it could be worse, but it is hardly good.
The most recent attempt to address some of these issues has attracted dissent. There is lots of uproar about the latest proposal from the House of Representatives “The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act” (see e.g. this op-ed by Rep. Frank Guinta and its comments). The uproar is especially from advocates about how federal highway user fees will no longer pay for transit and bicycle paths if this bill is passed.
I think this bill, while far from perfect, improves the current situation by dedicating fees that are collected from users to the thing they are using. Matt Kahn and I advocated:

Fix It First. All revenues from the existing federal gasoline tax and tolls would be redirected away from new construction. Instead, it would be used primarily to repair, maintain, rehabilitate, reconstruct, and enhance existing roads and bridges.

This bill gets the dedication of funds from users to users right, and it devolves responsibility to the states, but I don’t think it guarantees money won’t be spent on new projects rather than maintaining the existing system. Thus it still presents the misprioritization problem, but at least it as the state rather than federal level, and that is an improvement. Now it will be up to local citizens and their elected officials to spend the money wisely.
What is missing from these the advocate’s discussions is the rationale for why what would no longer be funded is a federal rather than local responsibility. I understand the convenience of keeping a federal gas tax rather than re-debating the issue in 50 state legislatures. I also understand the need for an interstate transportation system, and the imperfection of state gas taxes in capturing revenue from non-residents, especially in small states. What I don’t get is why that justifies federal funding of local transportation services that are used almost entirely by within-state residents.
If Minnesota wants more bike paths, that is a great thing, Minnesota should pay for it. (We can then discuss what level of state or local government should actually be responsible). No reason to bring Washington into it.
[As a positive rather than normative comment, given how much the House bill differs from the Senate bill, it is unlikely these differences will be reconciled easily or before the election.]