Should Drivers Pay for Roads?

by Jan Frazier

Washington, D.C. (Washington Insider Magazine) – For the past hundred years, Washington’s approach for paying for roads has been: “The people who drive on roads should pay for them.”

However, that idea has been on a decline in the past three decades. With President Biden’s and Congress’ huge infrastructure packages, the idea will soon be dead. 

The reason is fairly simple: The federal Highway Trust Fund is paid for by the gasoline tax, and it is “politically untouchable.” This has driven leading lawmakers and presidents in the past – both Democrats and Republicans – to bulk at raising the tax since 1933. However, the nation needs money for roads, bridges, and transit, and it has to come from somewhere. The main idea has been to borrow it, and this adds to the already huge federal deficit.

Robert Pole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, said, “We’re seeing all kinds of other sorts of pay-fors to continue to grow the size of the program without having the actual users having to pay for it. That sets a bad example.”

The trend is alarming to road advocates. It is also alarming to businesses relying on highways to keep industries going. Gasoline should be considered a user fee and we need to keep alive the “user pays” principle. This concept is important to these huge investments, and they shouldn’t be ”subject to the whims of Congress and its appropriations process.” Politics can, unfortunately, bring concepts and establishments to a halt. 

On Thursday, the House’s surface transportation bill is expected to be passed in the lower chamber. It should bolster the Highway Trust Fund because there will be a one-time transfer of $148 billion gotten from the U.S. Treasury. 

It should also be stated that the concept of charging users of the roads that they access is not included in the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure compromise that President Biden’s White House appropriated a week ago. Rather, the White House and lawmakers “have proposed various alternative funding schemes, such as revenue from auction of wireless spectrum, that would probably reap only a fraction of the required cash with a one-time infusion.”

Ed Mortimer, vice president of transportation and infrastructure at the US. Chamber of Commerce, said, “The user fee works because it’s sustainable.”

Some of the lawmakers are fine with seeing the entire idea go away.

House Transportation Chair, Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), told reporters on Tuesday, “I’m perfectly fine with borrowing money to make investments in bridges that are going to last 100 years.”

Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has been pushing for a huge infrastructure plan, and he agrees. “We should deficit finance infrastructure spending, and characterizing paying in cash for physical infrastructure as some sort of adult, responsible position turns public finance and logic on its head. These are assets that will last decades, so should be paid over decades.”

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