This article from the Hill helps frame the national issue of the Federal Highway Trust fund’s pending renewal, and it’s implications on Georgia.
It begins by talking about a fancy new calculator by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association that allows you to rejigger some numbers around and see what the effects of budget is on transportation. It’s kinda cool, especially if you are a bit on the wonk side like me.
However, the creation of this calculator is not the full body of the article. Instead there are some interesting questions that arise about the funding of our highway infrastructure. For instance, the federal gas tax hasn’t been raised in 20 years. Consequently in an era of dramatically increased fuel economy (and thus generating less money per mile driven) the funds can’t keep up with demand.
Because of this funding discrepancy and the fact that the current Highway Trust Fund will expire in September 2014, the ARTBA has narrowed the outcomes to four options.
- Let the Highway Trust Fund go over the fiscal cliff
- Steal from other areas of discretionary spending
- Borrow from the general fund and add to the deficit
- Raise new revenues
Their prefered option is to raise the gas tax another 4.3 cents just like in 1993. In their own words this should take the Highway Trust Fund from “still stuck in traffic” to “green light.”
Tom Graves from Georgia’s 14th district has a different idea. In his Transportation Empowerment Act, his plan phases the current 18.4 cent federal gas tax to 3.7 cents, with the difference going directly to states in the form of a block grant. After a few years the block grant phases out and it is up to the states to raise enough revenue for their needs.
To me this seems like an interesting conundrum. Obviously, there is inefficiency in the current government plan. Though there is almost always inefficiency in any government plan. If we raise the federal gas tax, there could be more work done to improve infrastructure. If Georgia were to raise the gas tax on its own, and/or maintain the existing amount paid to the federal government as a state tax, then more money could be distributed locally under priorities decided here.
The Graves plan also looks interesting in that some of the inefficiencies will be mitigated. But, I think the Graves plan hinders the construction of a thoughtful planned infrastructure. Think the Johnson’s Ferry Road deal between Fulton and Cobb counties but at a much bigger level as we try to move beyond Georgia and travel state to state.
With this plan, most states will have to increase the gas tax they already collect. I can’t say I really see the benefit since it will be called a tax increase either way and the loss of coordination and planning abilities with the Graves plan.
At the end of the day, the bigger point is this: We’re about to have a national conservation about how best to fund transportation. Regardless of who is levying and collecting the taxes, the money we generate per vehicle mile traveled via the gas tax is falling, at the same time our needs continue to increase.