The program is the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays about half the yearly tab to build and maintain the nation’s roads, bridges and rails. At the moment, the loudest advocate for fixing it responsibly is a liberal Democrat, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.). This month Mr. Blumenauer proposed two bills meant to refill the fund based on the simple, unassailable principle that those who use the roads should pay for them. The measures are backed by a broad coalition of business and labor groups, and they are sensible. That and $3.69 will buy you a gallon of gasoline.
In one sense, I find it strange that conservatives are so dead set against paying for new and upgraded transportation projects–especially roads–with increased revenues from highway use. That comes from a reflexive “it’s a tax, it’s to the government, so it must be bad” mentality. Transportation infrastructure upgrades are essential to the running of a productive economy. It’s not an entitlement, although this kind of spending has been used as one in the past. However, let’s face facts: “pork” projects like Sarah Palin’s “bridge to nowhere” do more to enhance the productive capabilities of the American economy than most of the wealth transfers we see our government doing.
But in another sense people are right to be wary. Much of the problem is a general distrust of government, and some of that is rooted in the government’s habit of playing a shell game with its tax revenues, designating them for one thing while taking the general revenue and shifting it somewhere else. In the past the Highway Trust Fund has suffered from this and worse, such as allowing funds that are supposed to be going there to be diverted to other purposes. The worst abuses have been fixed, but every time Congress gets together strange things can and do happen.
Conservatives would do well to stop being so blindly reflexive on this issue, and work to make sure in the legislative process that the funds designated for transportation infrastructure improvements go where they’re designated. Conservatives should also recognise that many liberals have no use for these for environmental reasons, which should be motivation enough to support them.
One thing that would simplify the situation would be to tax petrol according to its price and not on a per gallon basis. Some states do it that way (Georgia comes to mind) and it would build in inflation in probably the simplest way possible. But it we don’t get moving on this, our country will literally grind to a halt.