US-DOT’s Pearl Harbor

One of the prerequisites for massive political change is a horrific disaster to permit or push our leaders to take action. Roosevelt needed Pearl Harbor to declare war on Imperial Japan, Bush needed 911 to address (however badly) the growing “terrorist” problem.

The US DOT and most state “xDOTs” have been studying ways to resolve their dual transportation crises of congestion and funding shortfalls for several years now. And since Al Gore’s resurrection the US DOT can now add the burden of emissions caused by congestion to that problem list.

And it’s the same in every other country – sometimes worse.

The general formula for the solution is to move away from fuel-tax dependency and toward road tolling. The ideal endgame is to replace the fuel-tax with a time, distance, and place charge (congestion pricing) on every mile driven everywhere.

While we’re some ways from that, it is being worked on, and the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge is the disaster that will focus motorists and politicians on a closer understanding of the problem.

How many people remember what they were doing when the USS Cole was attacked? Probably six. But how many recall what they were doing when the World Trade Centre was attacked?

Telling motorists that an absolute fuel-tax shortfall causes budget problems or that improving engine efficiency and alternate fuels means diminished relative tax efficacy, or that congestion causes productivity losses and economic harm and that congestion pricing would solve that, or that congestion increases the volume of harmful emissions, generally cause motorists to nod off. However, the notion that lack of funding might be the culprit in the Minneapolis bridge collapse, rather than an engineer asleep on her pencil, gets more attention. (Now we need them to get that the funding model is just as important as actually getting the funding.)

Minnesota and Oregon are two states that have already taken a leadership role in advocating ways to move from fuel-taxes to congestion pricing. This addresses funding, congestion and emissions, while fuel taxes essentially address only funding.

Minnesota’s Governor Pawlenty is a strong advocate of congestion pricing and has work in progress to move in that direction. The bridge collapse will get that advocacy the attention it needs.

What will happen in the short term is that many states that have been trying to increase the fuel-tax, will now be able to do so on the basis of safety – always more important than productivity. Pawlenty, who has resisted that to now (it really is the wrong solution), may have to cave in. There are a lot of good reasons that the cost of driving should rise, but doing it though fuel taxes will have only a minor effect on congestion. Rather it will affect discretionary travel more than commuting – i.e., it will cost motorists more to have less fun, rather than have motorists start thinking about alternate methods of commuting.

Watch for many, many references to the Minnesota I-35W bridge as politicians and transport leaders call for transport funding reform.

I just hope we are smart enough not to simply raise fuel taxes and walk away…


JustinP said...

You couldn't be more correct Bern! It's unfortunate that such things have to happen before the body politic wakes up and gets it!

The fear is that Congress will simply add another 5 cents to their already flat and failing tax. This would put the Highway Trust Fund on sound legs...for about 5 years until inflation catches up with that 5 cents. Let's hope we can convince them a better model exists.

Bern Grush said...

Ahhh, but it is far more than just inflation. More vehicles buying less gas per mile and escalating congestion and emission externalities are the less ‘obvious’ culprits. Because of the fuel tax’s inefficiency in taming the later two the fuel tax can only ever address the Trust Fund.

The Trust Fund, however critical should not be worshiped as the final solution.

rta said...

Great post!

Anybody that thinks about the concept for even a few minutes will realize that increasing the fuel tax will get us nowhere as far as new funding for infrastructure repairs. They're (fed, state and local govt) all passing laws and rewriting codes to improve mileage on cars and reduce the amount of miles we drive and/or reduce our dependance on cars in general. Depending on an increase in revenues from a commodity consumption based tax while at the same time mandating a reduction in the consumption of that commodity makes no sense whatsoever, which is exactly why they'll do it.

But that's OK, we'll just have the debate all over again in a couple years.