Ron Utt, recently retired transportation scholar with the Heritage Foundation, has elucidated his concerns about Governor Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan. In an op-ed published in the Bearing Drift blog, he makes some salient points:
There is much that is wrong with this plan; chief among them is the end of the fuel tax – which operates as a user fee falling only on those who use the roads. While this user fee/tax is far from perfect, it does closely connect costs with benefits, provides incentives to drive less and operate more fuel-efficient cars, and falls disproportionately on those who drive the most and those who operate cars with poor fuel economy. Is this a problem? Sadly, all of these market-based incentives and disincentives will disappear with the fuel tax, and those who drive the most and do so in gas guzzlers will no longer face any penalty now that their added costs to society and the transportation system will be covered by the state’s consumers through a higher sales tax.
That is exactly the point I have been trying to make.
The other disadvantage in shifting transportation funding from a user fee paid by the motorist to a broad-based tax paid by everybody is that motorists can no longer claim that they have earned a higher priority for road spending, as it is at present. Once this link is broken, the allocation of state transportation spending among the various and competing transportation modes will be determined by politics, not consumer choice and the influential unions and environmentalists will be in a much better position to shift spending from cost-effective roads to costly and heavily subsidized and underutilized trolleys, trains, buses and bicycles.
I don’t necessarily share Utt’s conviction that roads are “cost-effective” (it depends on which road we’re talking about) or that properly financed trolleys and trains are a boondoggle (refer to previous posts on “value capture”) but I do believe he is right to say that transportation spending priorities will be determined by political logic, not economic. Finally…
One leading Virginia legislator calls this a “bold plan”, and I agree that it is: It is bold in the way that the Charge of the Light Brigade, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Dien Bien Phu, and Pickett’s Charge were also “bold plans.”