Highway Bait And Switch

Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein both complain that Congress is letting America's highways fall apart by not raising the gasoline tax.  They complain that current gas taxes are no longer high enough to cover costs, as the Federal highway trust fund is empty.  Apparently, Congress and the President were always blithely happy to raise the gas tax to whatever it needed to be to cover costs, and now this current Congress is departing from the historic norm:

We used to have a straightforward way to fund infrastructure in this country: the federal gas tax. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower raised the tax from 1.5 cents a gallon to 3 cents to help pay for the creation of the interstate highway system. In 1959, he increased it from 3 cents to 4 cents. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax to 9 cents. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush raised it to 14 cents, with half of the increase going to reduce the deficit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised it to 18.4 cents.

In other words, from 1956 to 1993, there was a bipartisan consensus on the federal gasoline tax: Both parties agreed that it occasionally needed to be raised in order to help pay for the nation’s infrastructure. But since 2000, there has been a bipartisan consensus against raising the federal gasoline tax.

But here is what happened since 1993:  Roughly a third of highway taxes are diverted to local mass transit and other oddball non-highway projects.  Simply devoting all the highway trust fund to, you know, highways would add an effective 6-7 cents to the gas tax money without actually raising the tax.

Here is what is going on:  The Left loves mass transit projects, particularly urban rail.  Of all government transportation projects, these have by far the highest cost per passenger mile of anything we do, so diverting money to these projects reduces the bang for the buck but the Left loves these projects for social engineering reasons I will discuss in a post soon.

The Left knows that these transit projects will not stand up well in the appropriations process.  Kansas taxpayers are not going to be happy about paying for another couple miles of the LA subway system.  They will ask, rightly, why local urbanites can't pay for their own damn transit projects if these projects are so great.  But taxpayers generally support tax hikes for highways. So what does a politician on a transit mission do?  He sells the gas tax to the public on it being dedicated to highways.  Then he switches the money away from highways to transit.  This leaves highways falling apart.  So he can again go to taxpayers asking for money, ostensibly for highways, but of which a good portion will eventually be siphoned off to transit (and squirrel bridges and whatever).  Repeat.

In effect, calls for raising the gas tax are NOT to repair highways.  This is a bait and switch.  Gas taxes are sufficiently high enough to fully fund highway work if it was all applied to highway work.  Proposed increased in gas taxes are needed to pay for the continuing diversion of highway funds to egregiously expensive transit projects.  Congress is right to stop this shell game.


  1. craig:

    Has anybody ever done an analysis of public mass transit vs something like Google computerize roads and autos, it's my hunch that computerized autos are more efficient than the golden child of central planners?

  2. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States:

    >>> In effect, calls for raising the gas tax are NOT to repair highways. This is a bait and switch.

    Ah, isn't this the standard rule these days for ALL directed taxes? It's all CRAP?

    I recall in Gainesville, FL, when there was a local-option vote to raise the sales tax by a half-cent. The money was purportedly earmarked SOLELY to increase access and availability of local parks and recreation facilities. This, the local politicos got on the air and GUARANTEED would be the case -- expansion only, it would not be used to replace monies already marked§ for maintenance of existing facilities.

    The night it failed, the local #@$#^#^^ Mayor openly whined about "how the existing facilities were getting run-down, and they'd been counting on the tax to pay for maintenance and repairs, and now they didn't know how they were going to be able to pay for those". In other words, the claims were absolute fabrications, they ALWAYS were intending to bait-and-switch it -- the money from this sales tax would only have enabled them to steal money from obligations already in place and put it onto some pet project.

    Any chance I would EVER, in my entire LIFE, vote for a tax increase -- no matter the excuse -- went down the tubes. Not that there was a great chance in the first place, but now I am utterly against EVER giving the government any more money than they can rip out of my pockets. Eph them.... With a rusty, sharply burred, 3" pipe.... Rectally. >:-/

    § The subtle trick here is that they didn't necessarily have a responsible amount targeted for routine maintenance. Hence they could shift funds over to pay for "non-earmarked" maintenance and not be lying, even if any rational actor would have had it budgeted already.

  3. ringo:

    the Left loves these projects for social engineering reasons I will discuss in a post soon.

    I very much look forward to that and hope you'll consider in that discussion the following items:

    The left is very keen on anything which will increase population density. I believe this enthusiasm has its roots in three things:

    1. Stronger support for the left in dense urban environments.

    2. Familiarity and comfort with those dense environments at a sub-rational level, it is the "right" way for the world to look and feel, they're used to it and uncomfortable with other arrangments, but as a core belief, those on the left are not willing to allow others to enjoy what they would not.

    3. Both of which derive from the fact that individual liberties are incompatible with high density environments. At the extremes, imagine all the activities you can engage in on a square mile sized ranch... then imagine how many of those would be legitimately anti-social / criminal behaviour if you lived with 10 other people in an elevator. In that environment singing or wearing perfume could legitimately be a criminal offense.

  4. Jim Collins:

    Don't forget that the greater the population density, the easier they are to control and make dependant on the Liberals uhhhh I mean Government.

  5. DoctorT:

    The gasoline tax isn't the only fuel-related bait-and-switch program. The taxes on aviation fuel supposedly were devoted to the development and implementation of a modern and more efficient air traffic control system. Billions of tax dollars were collected for decades without one dime being spent on air traffic control improvements. (The federal government went through multiple rounds of planning a new air traffic control system, but it was so inept that each improvement plan would be outdated before reaching the request for proposal stage.)

  6. NormD:

    Its even more evil than that... The Left wants the roads to to be full of holes and crowded so they incentivize people to use their mass transit. When travel by car becomes easy and pleasant (computerized cars or whatever) many mass transit projects will be torn up and turned into roads.

  7. epobirs:

    The state tax money has without fail been stolen for various 'emergencies' most of my adult life in CA.

  8. Tim:

    They're doing the same "shuck and jive" dance here in GA right now; asking for a multi-billion dollar special sales tax for "road improvements to ease congestion." Stupid people never realize the DOT hasn't been able to do anything positive about that problem since the same DOT created the highway system that causes the congestion.
    You forgot to mention the privately-funded toll roads and HOT lanes that allow taxpayer money to be diverted to private companies for use of roads originally built by taxpayer money. We've got our share of that here too with more to come. I'd rather sit in traffic or go way outside of a direct route to avoid those "legalized" thefts.

  9. Mister Pickles:

    Good article. Most people never stop to think where tax money is being spent.

  10. Jhn1:

    Also add to the evaluation that modern EPA allowable asphault does not hold up as well as the old "polluting" asphault. Never mind the pollution and carbon release of having to redo the roads more frequently.