Basketball on ice
By Kirk Landers
In the month of April, the administration of President Barack Obama issued two statements relating to transportation issues that the President needs to reconsider.
First, the Administration sharply rebuffed a comment from its newly appointed transportation secretary Ray LaHood regarding the importance of eventually replacing the fuel tax as a financial base for the federal highway program with a vehicle-miles-traveled tax.
Hours after the words left the new Secretary’s mouth, the Obama administration issued a pointed statement that it was absolutely opposed to the VMT.
The administration’s statement suggested the VMT is extremely unpopular with the electorate, but that seems unlikely since few voters are even aware of the concept. Perhaps the Obama team was mindful of how the Bush Administration used the VMT as a red herring, advocating its adoption rather than dealing with the pathetic inadequacy of the existing federal fuel tax.
Either way, President Obama and his closest advisors must not slam the door on a vehicle-miles-traveled tax. It can be, in a few years, the best user-fee solution we have for funding vital national highways. Indeed, the next transportation bill needs to clear the way for this evolution by providing more and larger real-world tests of how to collect the vehicle-miles-traveled data without impinging on personal privacy.
The funding for this venture must also extend to a public education campaign on how it will work and why we are replacing the federal fuel tax with it. Perhaps that education campaign will even penetrate the literati of Capitol Hill.
Later in the month, President Obama himself waxed rhapsodic on how the nation’s investment in high speed rail service will alleviate traffic congestion and enhance the environment.
Please, Mr. President! This is the transportation equivalent of describing a jump shot in a hockey game.
High speed rail will compete with air travel. You would expect it to have a lessening affect on air traffic at larger airports—if it is inexpensive enough to woo business travelers away from commuter flights. Its affect on highway traffic will be too small to measure, as will any attendant decrease in engine emissions.
Indeed, it’s not even clear that commuter rail has a measurable impact on highway congestion and vehicle emissions. One of the great black holes of intelligence in our war on congestion and vehicle emissions is how much bang for the taxpayer buck we get when we invest in commuter rail, even in major metropolitan areas.
No one is fighting against mass transit investments because transit backers are an important part of the coalition that supports the road program, but some day we will have to grapple with this, too. As for high-speed rail, there may be many benefits to our society from its successful implementation, but it won’t do anything good – or bad — for roads.
Meanwhile, those of us who are concerned about the viability of the movement of goods and people on our roads have just gotten a message about the work that confronts us.
Even his detractors concede that President Obama is one of the most cerebral and best-read presidents in recent history. For him to be so blatantly incorrect on two different transportation issues is further proof of how little most politicians understand about roads and surface transportation in general.
These same politicians will be drafting a new federal transportation bill to replace the one that ends September 28. No group of people in the country has more expertise and savvy about roads to share with our elected officials and their aides than the readers of this magazine. So, make it your business for the next three months to write letters, make phone calls and attend town hall meetings to educate our leaders before they vote on the next transportation bill.