Funding Our Highways

By James Baxter, NMA President

The Bush administration just released another version of their plan to shift responsibility for highway funding to the “users.” This isn’t a bad idea, except that’s exactly the situation that has largely existed for most of the last century and all of the current century.

The users, namely motorists and commercial trucking firms, have paid for the construction and maintenance of our major highways (and not so major highways) through fuel taxes, registration fees and sundry other devices. Even local streets and roads often receive a portion of these fees to add to local taxes that provide access to private property, like our homes and work places.

What the administration really means is that users need to pay MORE fees and taxes and they don’t have the political will to justify increasing traditional funding resources.

They correctly sense that the public feels the existing funds are being wasted and misappropriated for the benefit of someone else, other than the users who paid the fees in the first place.

I know our organization would seriously consider supporting an increase in traditional user fees if we were assured that the money would be used to build and improve highways — versus funding light rail projects, buying laser guns by the gross, or paying for monuments that glorify members of Congress.

However, there is a middle ground between turning our freeways into toll road monopolies and the status quo. That middle ground would require that they federal government reduce and confine its reach to constructing, maintaining, and improving our Interstate highway system. All existing federal gas taxes would be devoted to this one function.

They wouldn’t be used to fund urban mass transit systems, holiday enforcement binges, NHTSA regulations, state and local highways, residential streets, public service announcements for safety programs, trucking regulations, parklands, or recreational trails. This isn’t to say the federal government shouldn’t be involved in many of these functions, but the funding source should not be motorist user fees.

The states and local governments will have to pick up the slack for state and local roads. On the flip side they will have no responsibility for funding the Interstate system and they can contract with the feds to provide maintenance and enforcement functions.

The interests that have seen motorist user fees as a cash cow for trails, busses, trains, property value enhancement and economic development projects will either have to come up with their own user fees or stand in line for a share of General Program Revenue. Seems fair to me, and a lot better than being robbed at the toll booth or whacked with a surcharge because I drove my car into the city.

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