The Transportation Empowerment Act vs. Phasing in Devolution One EV at a Time

Reihan Salam at The Agenda discusses The Transportation Empowerment Act as a Model for Conservative Policymakers

In short the TEA would ” lower the federal gas tax while shifting virtually all responsibility for funding existing and new roads to state governments over five years”.

This is in contrast with current law, which would keep the federal gas tax the same (and thus decreasing in buying power), or proposals to raise the gas tax to maintain buying power in the face of declining fuel sales due both to fuel economy and declining vehicle travel. This problem will worsen with fleet electrification.

The vast majority of travel is within the same county, and thus certainly the same state (See The Hierarchy of Roads, the Locality of Traffic, and Governance for data from GPS from Minnesota), especially for big states in the western half of the US. Thus the problem is largely a state not national problem. Where there is a large share of interstate travel, states are fond of tolls (as in the northeast corridor) [See my dissertation: On Whom the Toll Falls for theory and Why States Toll for empirical evidence].

I am very empathetic with the idea of Subsidiarity, that we should deal with problems at the lowest reasonable scale of government.  This mismatch (or correspondence problem) of jurisdictional authority and the locale of the problem leads to many inefficiencies. Just as the federal government should not fix potholes on my local street, and my homeowners association should not have a nuclear policy, roads should be dealt with, and funded, closest to the user without incurring excess costs due to losing economies of scale. States should (and in many case did) raise their gas taxes, and further share that revenue with local levels of government (replacing local property taxes and other sources of general revenue), to fix today’s potholes and weak bridges. (Or perhaps there would only be one level of government operating and maintaining all levels of roads in states, which might be more efficient – it is what many other utilities do).

However, I am also empathetic with the idea that there is an existing source of revenue (the existing level of federal gas tax) on which there is consensus, which should not be thrown away so that 50 more difficult political fights can be had to achieve the same level of revenue. Most of the federal gas tax is returned to the states in proportion to the amount that was generated in those states, and while there are federal government rules and regulations and stipulations that add to the cost of doing business, most of those rules and regulations are well-intentioned.

The conclusion I have come to is we should keep the federal gas tax at the level it is at, dedicate it to specific national purposes (Maintaining and Rehabilitating the National Highway System – i.e. Fix-it-First) and allow it to fade away in importance over time. While of course it is technically possible to make this change in five years, I think it needlessly accelerates the process. (I am also aware of the Overton Window, and staking out a more extreme position helps move the dialog in that direction.)

There will be inevitable change in highway funding with electrification, and little would be lost waiting until EVs and HEVs are, say, 25% or 50% of the fleet, and the country is ready for some form of state-based mileage fee in lieu of gas taxes, administered with an emergent national standard so there don’t have to be 20 transponders in each car or 50 vignette stickers on your door.

In the end not all problems are federal problems and not all solutions are federal solutions. But there are real problems, and immediately lowering the federal gas tax exacerbates the short run problem in transportation. I am not convinced that this cold turkey strategy of phasing out gas taxes in 5 years (or at at least luke-warm turkey) outweighs the negative effects of federal funding, such as building a more capital intensive system than states themselves could justify if they bore all the costs, and raising costs all around.

See also: Fix It First  and Enterprising Roads