Transportation is one of the main justifications for government, because streets, highways, and bridges facilitate the flow of people, goods, and services.
Government is performing one of its basic functions when it collects taxes and pays for public works that improve citizens’ lives and the economy. Congress has followed that tradition. The problem, according to Dave Robertson, political science professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, is that Congress likes building road and bridges, but it doesn’t like to raise the money needed to finance those projects.
“Congress is very unpopular, but incumbents almost always get re-elected,” Robertson says. “Incumbents nurture majorities in their districts or states no matter what people think of Congress. They like to spend but not to tax – so they like transportation projects that serve local constituents, but resist taxing constituents to pay for these projects. The transportation trust fund kept spending, while revenues dwindled.”
After decades of spending on projects and neglecting the need to raise revenue, the nation faces major transportation needs with meager resources. That crisis will be the focus of a discussion at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park at Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park. “Planning for Uncertainty – How Big is the Funding Crisis?” is the fourth in a series of presentations on the future of transportation, presented by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments and the Missouri History Museum.
Joining Robertson in this discussion is Jerry Blair, the director of transportation for East-West Gateway, which is the federally designated metropolitan planning organization for the St. Louis region. All major transportation projects that involve federal funding need the approval of the East-West Gateway Board of Directors.
The current political climate in Washington, D.C. does not enhance the chances for negotiation or compromise, Robertson says.
“Once upon a time there were conservatives, moderates and liberals in both political parties. But in recent years, party leaders, activists and voters have become more ideological, with liberals sorted into the Democratic Party and conservatives in the Republican Party. Today, to win the general election, incumbents cloud their partisanship, but to win primary elections against ideological candidates, they emphasize how partisan they are – so there is much less room than there used to be for Congressional compromise to raise revenues for transportation,” Robertson says.
Other changes and developments have made funding major transportation projects more difficult. The transportation system’s needs have far outstripped the traditional ways to pay for the work needed to preserve and enhance the system. User financing only goes so far.
The federal gasoline tax sits at 18.4 cents per gallon and has not been raised since 1993. Because the federal gas tax is a per-gallon tax, it is constricted by the growing popularity of fuel-efficient cars and the disincentive for people to drive while gasoline prices are higher than they were a year or more ago. Even if prices rise, is fewer gallons of gas are bought, federal gas tax revenues lag.
In addition to the troubled federal funding system, many state and local governments are having their own fiscal distress and are reluctant or unable to increase fuel taxes or motor vehicle and license fees. Local jurisdictions routinely depend on the federal government to pay about 80 percent for most major transportation projects.
Other methods to raise revenue come with their own complexities. A vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee, which would charge motor vehicle owners a fee based on how much they drive, has its own privacy and collection cost issues. More toll roads are another option, as is “congestion pricing” which would charge drivers fees in large cities during peak periods of traffic.
The four-part speaker series is part of East-West Gateway’s development of Connected 2045, the Long Range Transportation Plan for the St. Louis Region.