Getting What You Paid For — Paying For What You Get: Proposals for the Next Transportation Reauthorization (Policy Analysis)

When Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway

Act of 1956, it gave the Bureau of Public

Roads a clear mission: oversee construction of a

safe, high-speed Interstate Highway System. As

that system neared completion in the 1980s, the

mission of the Department of Transportation

became increasingly murky. Now the department

is supposed to reduce congestion; attract people

out of their automobiles; clean the air; promote

economic development; improve livability; create

a sense of community: and accomplish a variety

of other often conflicting goals — most of which

are not easily quantifiable.

As the mission became muddied, each surface

transportation reauthorization since 1982 has

included an increasing number of earmarks,

divided revenues among more and more different

funds, and added lengthy rules for how those

funds may be spent. Each earmark, apportionment,

and rule has made transportation spending

incrementally less efficient.

This increasing politicization of something

that began life as a fairly efficient program is the

predictable result of government involvement in

what is essentially a private economic activity. The

inevitability of such decline is a good argument

for abolishing the U.S. Department of Transportation

and devolving federal transportation programs

to the states.

Short of that, Congress should make every

effort to return to a system where people get what

they pay for — that is, transportation user fees are dedicated

to systems that benefit the people who paid

those fees — and people pay for what they get — that is,

people pay the full cost of the facilities they use.

As a second-best solution to abolishing the

Department of Transportation, this paper offers

eight proposals essential for the 2009 reauthorization

to achieve these goals. These proposals

include

  1. Apportion funds to states based on population,
  2. land area, and user fees

  3. Require that short-term plans be efficient
  4. or cost efficient

  5. Create a citizen-enforcement process that
  6. will ensure efficiency and cost efficiency

  7. Eliminate long-range transportation planning
  8. Allow unlimited use of road tolls
  9. Eliminate clean-air mandates
  10. Avoid earmarks
  11. Remove employee protective arrangements from transit law

When Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway

Act of 1956, it gave the Bureau of Public

Roads a clear mission: oversee construction of a

safe, high-speed Interstate Highway System. As

that system neared completion in the 1980s, the

mission of the Department of Transportation

became increasingly murky. Now the department

is supposed to reduce congestion; attract people

out of their automobiles; clean the air; promote

economic development; improve livability; create

a sense of community: and accomplish a variety

of other often conflicting goals — most of which

are not easily quantifiable.

As the mission became muddied, each surface

transportation reauthorization since 1982 has

included an increasing number of earmarks,

divided revenues among more and more different

funds, and added lengthy rules for how those

funds may be spent. Each earmark, apportionment,

and rule has made transportation spending

incrementally less efficient.

This increasing politicization of something

that began life as a fairly efficient program is the

predictable result of government involvement in

what is essentially a private economic activity. The

inevitability of such decline is a good argument

for abolishing the U.S. Department of Transportation

and devolving federal transportation programs

to the states.

Short of that, Congress should make every

effort to return to a system where people get what

they pay for — that is, transportation user fees are dedicated

to systems that benefit the people who paid

those fees — and people pay for what they get — that is,

people pay the full cost of the facilities they use.

As a second-best solution to abolishing the

Department of Transportation, this paper offers

eight proposals essential for the 2009 reauthorization

to achieve these goals. These proposals

include

  1. Apportion funds to states based on population,
  2. land area, and user fees

  3. Require that short-term plans be efficient
  4. or cost efficient

  5. Create a citizen-enforcement process that
  6. will ensure efficiency and cost efficiency

  7. Eliminate long-range transportation planning
  8. Allow unlimited use of road tolls
  9. Eliminate clean-air mandates
  10. Avoid earmarks
  11. Remove employee protective arrangements from transit law

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future and the forthcoming Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It.

Studies from the Cato Institute