Last night the Senate passed its version of the highway bill, voting to refill the federal Highway Trust Fund’s tank just enough to let it coast to the other side of the November midterm elections. After those elections, it is expected that there will be a strong push to raise the federal gas tax in order to close some of the gap between projected revenues and estimates of what it would cost to maintain our infrastructure status quo.

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, the former engineer turned passionate urbanism reform advocate profiled here, summarizes the common arguments made for hiking the federal gas tax:

The gas tax needs to go up because (1) it has not been increased since 1993 so inflation has eroded a lot of its purchasing power (wait – I thought inflation was good). Then there is (2), our cars have gotten more fuel efficient and so the gas tax doesn’t go nearly as far as it once did. Finally, (3) we have horrible congestionsafety problems and we need the economic growth that comes with transportation investments.

Marohn went on to do his own number crunching, however, to see just what kind of a hike in the gas tax would be required to meet the American Society of Civil Engineers’ wish list, and came up with this rather alarming chart:

Strong Towns

Strong Towns

Marohn continues,

I’ve passed this around and people want to know the math, which I’m going to provide below, but here’s the takeaway: we may have a funding problem, but that’s not what is going to take us down. Our real problem is that we have not had to think about what we are doing for a long, long time. We’ve been so wealthy and affluent that funding the most bizarre transportation arrangement on earth became akin to the American way of life. Congestion-free roadways and ample parking are to the United States what bread and circuses were to Rome. Get out your fiddle, that smoke is real.

The question facing us now isn’t whether or not to increase funding for transportation but whether or not to reform – or even question – the very nature of our approach to transportation. An increase in the gas tax, additional sales taxes/fees or more deficit spending only allow us to continue to distort – for a few more years – a transportation system that is not financially viable. Without any price signals providing supply/demand feedback, we are destined to build ourselves into insolvency (again).

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, on the other hand, has been pushing his own “Transportation Empowerment Act” in order to cut the federal gasoline tax significantly, and devolve increasing amounts of responsibility for transportation planning and maintenance back to the states without the currently attached federal strings. He offered the plan as an amendment to the current highway bill, but it failed 28-69.

Even with only a couple days left to act, it seems likely that Congress will re-up the current system until after election day, at which point we will get the bread and circuses display once more.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.