The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which was created by SAFETEA-LU, has released its final report with “detailed recommendations for creating and sustaining a pre-eminent surface transportation system in the United States.” The highlights of the report are summarized in this article from the Chicago Tribune:
Funding battle mounts after study suggests expanding nation’s transit systems
National report stirs debate over cost of fixing roads, rails
Jon Hilkevitch | Getting Around
January 21, 2008
…It said an investment of at least $225 billion annually is needed over the next half-century, in part to accommodate a projected increase in the U.S. population of 150 million over the same period.
“We are spending less than 40 percent of this amount today,” the study said.
It also recommended narrowing 108 federal surface transportation programs into a list of 10 goals.
They include rebuilding roads, the freight railroad system and urban mass transit; embarking on new efforts to relieve traffic congestion in metropolitan areas; improving connections between smaller cities and rural areas; reducing highway accident deaths; building a fast and reliable intercity passenger rail network; and protecting the environment as well as the nation’s energy security.
In addition, the report suggested ways to shave years off the time it takes for design, approval and construction of projects.
…Meanwhile, the Bush administration blasted the transportation study. The administration’s key objection was the recommendation to raise the federal gasoline tax, by a total of 40 cents a gallon over the next five years. After that, the tax would be indexed to inflation.
It would be the first hike in the federal gas tax, which is now 18.4 cents per gallon, since 1993.
“Ultimately, the commission report chooses to take the path of higher taxes, more wasteful spending, more congestion and greater pollution,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said Thursday in testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Peters, who was a member of the commission, declined to sign the report. She submitted a “minority views statement” outlining her disagreements over raising the gas tax and the study’s recommendations on how responsibility over central planning should be reallocated.
The Tribune article makes Mary Peters and the Bush administration out to be the bad guys, but if you actually read the minority views, I think they have very valid points:
Continued dependence on fuel taxes not only fails to align supply and demand properly, it is also inconsistent with national energy policy. That policy, reflected in recently enacted legislation, seeks to reduce our nation’s dependence on imported oil, dramatically increase vehicle fuel economy and increase the use of alternative and renewable fuels. A majority of our Commission colleagues propose to expand transportation capacity by increasing government taxation of commodity whose consumption we seek to discourage. Placing our energy, environment and transportation infrastructure funding policies into direct conflict with each other guarantees failure of one or all policies.
I have no problem with increasing the gas tax, but I think she’s right that it is an unsustainable source of revenue that needs to be replaced with user fees. The minority opinion also makes the point that user fees can help to bring the supply and demand of transportation facilities into balance to get more efficiency out of existing systems. They also want to utilize private funding sources through creative public-private partnerships.