The Citizens’ Guide to Transportation Reauthorization (Briefing Paper)

Sometime in 2010 or 2011, Congress expects

to decide how to spend the $250 billion or more of

federal gas taxes and other highway user fees that

will be collected over the next six years. The

process of doing so is called surface transportation

reauthorization. A major point of contention in this

law is how much of our transportation system

should be centrally planned and how much

should be built and operated in response to the

needs of actual transportation users.

Advocates of top-down planning want to

reduce per capita driving by providing disincentives

to automobiles, such as increased congestion

and driving costs, and funding expensive

alternatives such as high-speed rail and rail transit.

Even if you believe in the goal of reducing per

capita driving, the evidence indicates that these

tools have minimal effect on driving and may

even be environmentally counterproductive.

Advocates of customer-driven transportation

want to fund transportation out of user fees,

not taxes, and make transportation providers—

whether public agencies or private parties—

responsive to the needs and desires of those

users. Decades of experience have proven that

the best way of reducing the environmental

costs of transportation is to use new technologies

to reduce the impacts per mile of mobility,

not to reduce mobility itself. This citizens’ guide

presents the basic facts behind these two views.

Sometime in 2010 or 2011, Congress expects

to decide how to spend the $250 billion or more of

federal gas taxes and other highway user fees that

will be collected over the next six years. The

process of doing so is called surface transportation

reauthorization. A major point of contention in this

law is how much of our transportation system

should be centrally planned and how much

should be built and operated in response to the

needs of actual transportation users.

Advocates of top-down planning want to

reduce per capita driving by providing disincentives

to automobiles, such as increased congestion

and driving costs, and funding expensive

alternatives such as high-speed rail and rail transit.

Even if you believe in the goal of reducing per

capita driving, the evidence indicates that these

tools have minimal effect on driving and may

even be environmentally counterproductive.

Advocates of customer-driven transportation

want to fund transportation out of user fees,

not taxes, and make transportation providers—

whether public agencies or private parties—

responsive to the needs and desires of those

users. Decades of experience have proven that

the best way of reducing the environmental

costs of transportation is to use new technologies

to reduce the impacts per mile of mobility,

not to reduce mobility itself. This citizens’ guide

presents the basic facts behind these two views.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the forthcoming book, Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.

Studies from the Cato Institute