Applauding Mary Peters

At the mid-January Transportation Research Board’s 87th Annual Meeting, a staggering number of sessions were dedicated to transportation demand management, congestion pricing, value pricing, road tolling, HOT lanes, road user charging, and everything else that said the fuel taxes were at the root of unsustainability of our surface transport system. If you weren’t there to meditate on bridge construction, aggregates or traffic signals, you were there to pray for our surface transport network. There was no mistaking the general urgency: we have to find a way to solve the highway funding crisis, address congestion and reduce emissions. And while perhaps not unanimous, a majority of us look to market mechanisms as the sustainable way to address them.

An early session: Emerging Debate About New Systems for Transportation Finance and Funding Approaches for the Future had a panel of four senior transportation thinkers. Among them was Commission Vice-Chair, Jack Schenendorf to provide a Perspective from the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission. The Commission’s Report was to be released 48 hours later. A stream of questions from the audience evoked the same answer, “I can’t answer that until Tuesday, but I think you will be very pleased with the Commission’s Report”.

Man we were excited. Commission Chair, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, has been very public in her opinion that the architecture of the gas tax was at the root of the problem – that we are taxing the wrong thing. Commissioner Maria Cino, Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation had described the Commission’s work thus: “…it will be the tough choices that we have to make and really, I think, being bold, and doing not a lot of what’s been done before...”

Finally, we could anticipate a coherent, thoughtful body of intelligent recommendations to address the problems of the economically inefficient gas tax and strangled road networks – and that Congress would understand and act on it.

Why then did we see three of 12 commissioners, including Peters and Cino vote against accepting the Report? Because in advocating an increase in gas tax while hedging their bets on pricing research and trials, the Report authors failed to teach how to create sustainable, efficient funding mechanisms. In Peters’ Minority View, this “…promotes relative indifference to the revenue mechanisms themselves so long as adequate revenue is generated.”

Commissioners Peters, Cino and Rick Geddes refused to vote for a Band-Aid.

Kudos to them.

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