A response to Dr. Utt’s criticism of the Governor’s Transportation Plan

What Dr. Utt refers to in his column here as a “novelty act” represents one of the first truly innovative ideas in transportation funding in a long time. The reality to anybody paying attention to the transportation funding problems we face on both a state and federal level is that the gas tax is dying. It is simply not bringing in enough money to cover the needs of Virginia and the nation. And the solution – which is both bad policy and politically impossible – of raising it every time there is a shortfall is no solution at all. It’s time for leaders to think outside of the box on transportation funding, and this plan represents a good first step in that direction.

Dr. Utt describes the gas tax as a “user fee.”  This is a common statement, but one I have never fully understood. Everyone benefits from roads. Everyone. Even folks, like my mother, who are bedridden. The folks in her nursing home who care for her get to work using the roads. The trucks who deliver the food she eats use the roads. Everyone benefits from roads, even people who never get behind the wheel of a car or step on a bus. Those folks do not pay for the benefits they receive – they’re free riders when it comes to infrastructure spending. Roads and transportation infrastructure are things that benefit everyone, not simply the people driving on them. Thus, if anything, these are the kinds of things that taxes were designed for. Folks who drive pay additional, legitimate “user fees” in the form of car registrations, personal property tax, and the like, not all of which goes back to transportation. The gas tax as a user fee idea needs to die a quick death because it ignores the reality of the benefits we all receive from the system.

Dr. Utt also laments that ending the gas tax will remove market-based incentives and disincentives to certain behavior – like driving too much, or driving gas guzzling cars. The reality is that the price of gas itself, which may go down but not likely by a significant amount if the tax is repealed, is what creates those incentives and disincentives, not the tax rate. Throw in mandated CAFE standards at the federal level, and people are driving less and more fuel efficient cars anyway, regardless of the gas tax.  The gas tax has a minimal impact on those market-based incentives.

Dr. Utt’s claim that that consumer choice fuels transportation spending priorities more than politics is hard to understand. He notes correctly that mass transit gets a far larger chunk of the infrastructure pie than it should based on usership. This is absolutely true, and something I wanted to address when I ran for office. But the reason for that is, well, politics. That problem exists and has existed for the last thirty years, since mass transit and “smart growth” began being trumpeted as the panacea to end all traffic woes – which they have never turned out to be. The idea that transit sucking away infrastructure money will somehow get worse with the end of the gas tax is hard to fathom – how could it really get any worse?   Politics has been the bane of transportation funding solutions and the result has been the current impasse that has resulted in steadily dwindling funds for years.  You will never completely get politics out of the equation.  As for mass transit vs. roads, politics is the solution to that concern as well – its time for drivers to stand up and demand more roads, not more buses and trains they don’t use.

The bottom line is that transportation infrastructure funding relies on a dying source of revenue. As more and more drivers opt for smaller cars, hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles, and as CAFE standards ratchet up in the coming years, the amount of revenue the gas tax generates will continue to shrink. Simply raising the tax – besides being politically impossible – is not a long term solution to this problem.

The Governor’s plan, however, is a long term solution. And it’s still a choice that makes sense from a purely logical standpoint. The sales tax is, effectively, a tax on commerce. Commerce cannot exist without the infrastructure to enable it to exist. Farmers can’t get their produce to market without roads. Retailers can’t stock their shelves without roads. We can’t get to the store without roads. So tying road money to the sales tax just makes common sense. And since the tax is not a fixed dollar fee per sale – unlike the gas tax, which is a fixed price per gallon – the tax really never has to be raised. It’s automatically indexed to inflation, it grows as the economy grows, and it’s just as dedicated to transportation in the Governor’s plan as the gas tax is. It solves a myriad of political as well as policy problems.

The fact that the plan has the support of many legislators in the House and Senate already speaks volumes. The Governor knows as well as any of us, and as well as Dr. Utt, the potential downsides to suggesting changes that can be easily decried as tax increases. He would not have announced support for this proposal if he thought it was going to destroy his career or would garner so little support in the General Assembly as to turn him into a laughingstock.

As Dr. Utt notes, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Pickett’s Charge and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia were all bold plans. So was storming the beaches at Normandy, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and Nelson at Trafalgar. Bold plans work as often as they fail, and the best laid bold plans succeed.

The Governor’s plan represents the first real long-term solution for solving our transportation funding crisis anyone on either side of the aisle has proposed in years. We’ll see how it fares in the General Assembly, but it deserves a more rigorous review than the knee-jerk panning I’ve seen coming from too many corners – none of whom seem to have any better solutions, either.