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Decentralization transportation policy in the Internet Age

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Transportation,Michael Barone,Gas Tax,Interstate Highways

Transportation policy expert Ken Orski does a good job of pulling together developments, most recently at the Heritage Foundation in July and in a speech later that month to the Council of State Governments’ Southern Legislative Conference. The bottom line: Transportation decisions and policy are being devolved to the states, even as the Obama administration seeks to increase centralized command-and-control government in Washington.

The reason is money. Gasoline tax revenues are declining because of federally imposed mileage requirements and because people have been driving less — a trend that began when the economy collapsed and seems to have continued at least up to the most recent data available. Gas tax revenues are not enough to fund federal transportation at current levels, and Congress is unwilling to raise the gas tax. Using other revenue sources is controversial, and Congress keeps passing stopgap measures that keep money flowing to the states for a little while but do not address the need for long-term funding.

So some states are increasing their retail or wholesale gas taxes, others are borrowing through bond issues and other financial sources, some states are entering into public-private partnerships (such as the one that is building a new Detroit River Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario) and some are building toll roads, which are much more feasible than they were in the past because of transponder technology. Some states are pondering a per-mile driving tax, one reason being that electric cars use no gasoline at all yet they do cause wear and tear on the roads.

All of which makes a certain amount of sense. The federal government designed and largely paid for the Interstate Highway System, starting in the 1950s, in part because it made sense to create a clearly articulated system. That didn’t work quite perfectly: There is no interstate highway between Phoenix and Las Vegas, metropolitan areas with populations of 3.8 million and 2 million people in 2010, because 1950 census figures showed them with populations of just 331,000 and 48,000 when project managers began designing the interstate system. Now it looks like the states will be able to decide where to put new roads and how to maintain current ones, presumably with some consultation with contiguous states.

It’s another example of how we are moving, despite the efforts of the current administration, from the centralized command-and-control policies suited to the Industrial Age to more decentralized, market-oriented policies suited to the Information Age.

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