The cars Americans drive are becoming more fuel-efficient. But there's one way in which that's a bad thing.
First, let's start by acknowledging the obvious public goods that come with more fuel efficiency: less greenhouse gasses and other pollutants, and less reliance on foreign oil.
But there is a downside: less revenue to rebuild roads and bridges, less resources for public transit and bike and pedestrian programs, and even more reliance on local property taxes to pay for streets.
The reason for this is that most of the revenue that goes into the national and state transportation funds comes from gasoline taxes that you and I pay at the pump. For decades this has worked pretty well as revenues went up with vehicle miles traveled and roughly kept pace with building needs. It's also reasonably fair. The more you drove the more you paid.
But a combination of factors has conspired to make that system less effective. People are driving less because of the recession, the automatic gas tax increases that kept the state fund solvent were eliminated a few years ago, and the aforementioned increase in fuel efficiency means we're paying less overall in gas taxes, even when we drive the same miles and put the same wear and tear on our roads. (By the way, the issue isn't so much with hybrids and electric vehicles; they make up only about 1% of the fleet. It's conventional vehicles that are getting better mileage that accounts for most of the fuel savings.)
So, how do we fix the funding problem? It seems to me we need to take five steps.
First, fix the roadways. We have a huge backlog in bridge and pavement replacement. Let's get to that first before we take on expensive highway expansions.
Second, address the inequity of local roads. It turns out the vast majority of pavement miles is in our local streets and town roads. Yet, very little of our gas tax dollars go to help maintain them. Too much of that cost is borne by local property tax payers, even though people from all over the state and nation use them. Let's increase the amount of the transportation fund set aside for local street repair. That would also provide some property tax relief.
Third, give us all more options. We're an aging society, with 77 million of us nationwide in the Baby Boom generation. As we age, we'll want to -- and should -- drive less. Many of us will be in rural and suburban areas that are currently unserved or poorly served by transit. We need to plan for that. On the other end of the age spectrum, childhood obesity is at epidemic levels, and only 15% of kids today walk or ride their bikes to school compared to more than half a generation ago. Congress recently eliminated the Safe Routes to School program. This makes no sense. Alternatives to car travel are going to be more in demand in the future.
Fourth, don't ignore the transportation-land use connection. We need to continue the trend toward urban living and "new urbanism" that gives people transportation options. The truth is that it's very expensive to serve a highly dispersed population with transit.
Fifth -- and this is the tough one -- we need to pay for all of this. The gas tax is unlikely to be raised in this political environment and, anyway, it has become an unreliable source of revenue. We need a new way. Maybe it's something called a "VMT fee" (Vehicle Miles Traveled fee), which would simply charge something for every mile driven. It's essentially like the gas tax except that it's the purest form of fairness. Quite literally, you'd pay for every mile driven, and therefore the wear and tear on the roads that you're responsible for. No more and no less. Conservative free-marketeers like it because it's such a simple market-based solution. Environmentalists should like it because it provides a disincentive to drive more than you have to and should make people start thinking about the relative costs of driving versus other modes.
There are a number of technical problems with the VMT solution and it would be better started as a national effort. But Congress is paralyzed. They passed a new national transportation act recently, but punted on the tough funding issues, essentially moving those down the road. It looks like the states are going to have to figure this out first, and then maybe the feds will follow.
I'm a member of a commission that's looking at this problem at the state level. We should have some recommendations later this year. So far, this commission led by Wisconsin DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb has been studious, thoughtful, and willing to give and take. In other words, it has been totally disconnected from the dominant political environment these days.
In my view, the commission needs to stay disconnected enough to come to some unanimous and specific conclusions, but also connect to the real political world just enough to make our recommendations politically viable. That's no small task.