Over at the National Journal's Transportation Expert blog, Fawn Johnson asks whether or not the Obama administration's transportation agenda, as laid out in its FY 2012 budget, makes sense. In his budget, Obama proposes replacing the Highway Trust Fund with a new Transportation Trust Fund, which would add a high-speed passenger rail account and an account for his proposed National Infrastructure Bank, in addition to the existing Highway and Mass Transit Accounts. This is bad on so many levels, but I'll focus on two.
First, this further undermines the users pay/users benefit financing principle that the original Highway Trust Fund embodied. Highway users pay federal excise taxes on fuel, tires, etc. and the monies go into the Highway Trust Fund. Until 1983 when Congress foolishly created the Mass Transit Account, virtually all of the revenue collected through these excise taxes was dedicated to highway construction and upkeep. While certainly imperfect, there was at the assumption that this approach was fairer, responded more effectively to fluctuations in user demand, and kept harmful political interference on the part of dangerous ideologues and special interests to a minimum.
The Obama administration, at the insistence of their radical environmentalist and smart-growth allies such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Transportation for America, is attempting to implement transportation policy that would all but eliminate the users pay/users benefit principle. This would enhance the ability of the Department of Transportation to pump more road-user dollars into wasteful transit projects, anti-mobility "livability" programs, and the president's high-speed intercity passenger rail pipe dream.
Second, the private sector has become more interested in taking over turnpikes or tolling free highways, and is willing to invest billions of dollars of its own. Electronic tolling has made revenue collection a breeze. As the Independent Institute's Gabriel Roth notes, trust funds like this will soon be functionally obsolete. The Obama administration's goal of more centralized political control over transportation investment is working against this positive trend. Administration-backers frequently accuses critics of its transportation agenda of living in the past, yet they are the ones completely oblivious to the advancements made in the realms of private financing and the infrastructure development. It is time the administration abandon its 1960s Keynesian approach to transportation policy and let market players build a better, more mobile, and freer future.