Libertarian Road Trip 2010!

Libertarian think-tank The Reason Foundation released a report on how to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent. Can you guess what’s on the chopping block?

A Libertarian told me that if we were allowed to drink and drive there would be fewer potholes. flickr user MHZmaster

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The planning world is understandably devoid of Libertarians. The whole notion of urban or transportation planning is anathema to the Libertarian project. But I fear there might be something lost if we pretend these ideas are illegitimate, and it’s worth checking in with the Rand-reading set to see what, if anything we can take away from their circa-1788 views on the role of the federal government, especially as it creeps its way into our national political discourse, and the chambers of Congress.

The Reason Foundation is a “nonpartisan public policy research” organization that seeks to “advance a free society by developing, applying and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets and the rule of law.” In that very interest, they recently released a report, authored by Robert Poole and Adrian Moore, titled: “Restoring Trust in the Highway Trust Fund.” The report is, mostly, a well-reasoned (within their political ideology) argument for reauthorizing the surface transit bill without any spending on transit, bike paths, “livability” or any other sustainable form of transit. Their reason being that in 1956, when the Highway Trust Fund was established to pay for the new Interstate system, Congress agreed to fund it using a “user-pays” system: the fuel tax. Before 1956, the fuel tax was low, and contributed to the general fund; after passing the bill, the tax went up and became dedicated to funding and improving the Interstate system.

But disaster struck in 1970, when PL 91-605, the surface transportation bill, authorized the use of HTF funds for transit. Since then, subsequent reauthorizations have “steadily increased non-highway uses, such that today urban transit, bikeways, scenic trails, ‘enhancements,’ and numerous other programs consume about one-quarter of all current federal highway user tax revenues.” The Reason Foundation believes that by going back to the pre-1970 model will free up enough money to keep the Interstate system afloat, and that with minor increases in state fuel taxes, states will be able to maintain their own roads better without costly federal requirements like — no kidding — “mandates for safety belt usage, minimum drinking age and maximum blood-alcohol levels, Davis-Bacon labor requirements, Buy America requirements, various affirmative action mandates and transportation planning requirements.” 19-year-olds rejoice: Robert W. Poole, Jr. is totally down to go buy beer for you at 7/11, but if you grow up to work in a union, or at a factory, he despises you. This seems to be one of the question-begging assumptions central to Libertarianism, in my eyes: public spending becomes very foolish when deregulatory policies remove all the positive multiplicative effects of public spending. Libertarians don’t believe states should be compelled to buy American-made, union-made goods for American infrastructure improvement projects, but in believing that, they guarantee that public spending — which they loathe — will not have very beneficial returns for a local economy.

But the biggest enemy in the report is the transit and livability lobby in Washington, or what they call “opponents of highways and automobiles,” which Moore and Poole seem to think is much larger than it actually is. They have earned Libertarian’s scorn by successfully redirecting some federal transportation dollars towards transit, biking, and livability projects, all of which are dismissed out of hand by Poole and Moore as not cost-effective. To be fair, that is consistent with their political philosophy. But, I think they are guilty of a bit of sleight of hand, when they deftly convince the reader that transit ought not be funded by money set aside for transportation:

Asking federal highway users to pay substantially more in order to fund expanded programs for sidewalks, bikeways, recreational trails and more transit is unlikely to succeed, since the large majority of highway users do not use, and would not benefit from, these mostly localized urban projects. Principles of federalism suggest that these kinds of projects are more appropriately funded at state or local levels of government. But if Congress sees fit to continue them at the federal level, they should be supported by all taxpayers, as the kind of social infrastructure funded by federal agencies concerned with urban amenities (HUD) and outdoor recreation (Interior).

Their assumption is that there is absolutely no public benefit to any transit project anywhere in the United States. Well, if you’re running the nation like you would a corporation, perhaps that’s the case. It’s sneaky logic, and one imagines that they’d prefer if transit didn’t exist at all (a Randall O’Toole citation in the bibliography suggests the same; a misspelling of our President’s name — “Barak Obama” — in the bibliography is, I don’t know, a bit odd). Furthermore, by kicking any and all transit down to state’s rights, they make it much more difficult for a locality to actually fund a project whose returns might come a long way down the road; after all, unlike the federal government, states cannot take on deficits. That’s obviously the point of their argument, but they never state it outright, which makes it somewhat sneaky, in my opinion.

While they do provide a clever way for the HTF to remain solvent, their definition of transportation as, roughly, “that which funds the HTF, as per legislation passed in 1956” seems a bit too narrow for today’s purposes, and much too reliant on the “user-pays/user-benefits” model of public spending. This makes their complaint that the federal government lacks a vision for how to deal with transportation in 21st century that much more ironic. Sure, The Reason Foundation has provided a model for how to fund Interstate improvement over the coming years, but only by ignoring the looming specters of peak oil, foreign policy concerns, and environmental concerns that dependence on the automobile raises. Rely on a strict user-pays system all you want — no one will benefit if we have to fight wars that are actually about oil, or if our economy collapses under rising energy costs.

While the report completely ignores foreign policy and peak oil concerns, they do deal with the environment, in their own way, that reveals another inconsistency in their logic. They cite a Transportation Research Board report that argues for taxing — or “charging” — drivers by Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), instead of charging the federal gas tax. Given that cars’ fuel economy is on the rise, it might become necessary to switch to a VMT model to capture enough revenue to keep the Trust Fund afloat. Unlike gasoline, which has distinct points of dispensation, VMT are a bit harder to calculate. And any workable way of collecting this tax would either be too invasive (some sort of government-installed odometer) or too expensive (a Turnpike-like system of toll booths every few miles) for anyone so interested in a users-pay model to bother with. It’s funny that a Libertarian organization might endorse it. Naturally, The Reason Foundation likes VMT charges, but notes that “social engineering” concerns could “engender opposition”. Also, they fear that government officials might arrogantly expand the role of the federal government by trying to bundle charges for externalities — like, say, carbon emissions — into the VMT “charge”, thereby making it a “tax”.

It seems neither Poole nor Moore really believe in the serious environmental risks posed by an extended reliance on fossil fuels, as is evident by their flippant take on the current debate:

The reauthorization debate takes place amid considerable political and popular support for measures to reduce petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions. That means Congress will be motivated to fund federal programs such as urban transit and other “livability” measures, in the mistaken belief that such measures are cost-effective ways to achieve those goals. In our view there is not significant national benefit from or appropriate national goals served by such measures.

Well what would a cost-effective way for the government to lower greenhouse gas emissions be, in the eyes of the authors? The answer is, presumably: who cares! The free market will find a solution to the problem (The Reason Foundation, or at least its editor, came around and admitted that global warming is a real thing almost exactly five years ago). For now, the only problem The Reason Foundation can see is all this damn transit money taking away from our highways.

The cover art of the report is illustrative of the logical inconsistencies of this sort of stance, a yellow road sign on the side of a desert road warns: WASTED TAX DOLLARS AHEAD. Could this desert road be the non-existent link between Las Vegas and Phoenix that the authors use as an example of the failure of the Interstate system to fully fund itself through the fuel tax? Well, then, what of the failures of housing, economic, environmental and land-use policy that created the monstrosities that Phoenix and Las Vegas are that might necessitate such a link? Their sheer existence — and now, their failures — show what five decades of subsidized suburbia and automobile dependence have led to, and where we might end up in the future if we don’t change something about the way we live. The Reason Foundation offers creative ways to make the HTF solvent, but they offer no solutions to our larger problems.

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Tags: infrastructurewashington dcgovernance

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