Argument: solve Interstate issues by handing them back to the states

One writer suggests it is time for the federal government to get out of the business of funding interstate highways:

Assuming time travel is off the table, let’s learn from our mistakes. First, let’s get the federal government completely out of the business of maintaining the interstate highways crisscrossing our big metropolitan areas. Hand these roads over to state governments as soon as possible, and free state governments to finance these roads in any way they see fit, from higher state gas taxes to variable tolls they could use to reduce traffic congestion. Second, for interstate highways that connect cities across deserts and cornfields, let’s replace the federal gasoline tax with per-mile tolls. One of the many problems with the gas tax is that as gas mileage improves, and as a small but growing number of drivers turn to electric vehicles, gas tax revenue is not keeping up with the needs of the highway system. Per-mile tolls can solve that problem by charging drivers according to how much they actually use the highway system, regardless of the kind of vehicle they’re driving. And as Robert W. Poole Jr. explains, they can be pegged to the cost of each road and bridge, which will help ensure that roads and bridges are adequately financed.

After adopting this approach, we will see states investing in the infrastructure projects that best meet their needs, with some states, like California and New York, choosing to invest more heavily in urban mass transit while others, like Texas and Utah, build bigger and better highways. What remains of the federal highway system, meanwhile, will evolve over time, as the routes that attract the most traffic will grow in line with their per-mile toll revenue while those that attract the least will stay the same size, or perhaps even shrink. We’ll have an infrastructure worthy of a bigger, denser, more decentralized America—the kind of infrastructure that Ike, in his infinite wisdom, would be proud of.

An interesting argument that might have appeal for both liberals and conservatives. For conservatives, having more local control is generally good and states could innovate in a way that a larger bureaucracy might not. (At the same time, corporate interests cross state and national lines and they might not like a decentralized highway network.) For liberals, highways have often been used in redevelopment projects harming poorer neighborhoods and state control would theoretically give neighborhoods and communities more say over the fate of highways. Additionally, interstates encourage sprawl and liberals might want to reign in highway building and maintenance in many places.

I could also imagine several objections to this argument:

1. How many states would be willing to take this on right now given budget issues? This would have to be phased in over time. Which government officials want to take responsibility for raising tolls for driving?

2. Uniformity in the system could be a good thing ranging from common road signs to expectations regarding levels of maintenance and service across states.

Considering a mileage tax at the federal level

States have been discussing mileage taxes to fund road construction and maintenance but it is now up for discussion at the federal level:

Shuster rejected the idea of raising the nation’s 18.4 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax, now the primary method of paying for road, bridge and mass transit projects. Besides a mileage tax, he said other funding methods include higher taxes on energy exploration and bringing back corporate profits earned overseas…

A vehicle miles tax has never been considered on the federal level because of objections to the concept of tracking how many miles people drive to assess and collect the levy. There have been some state- and local-level experiments.

A partisan dispute in Congress over tax increases is clouding potential action on a long-term highway bill backed by companies including Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) It’s also heightening the risk that the U.S. will run out of money to pay for projects later this year…

Groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest business lobby, want to prevent a repeat of 2012, when proposals to fund roads, bridges and mass transit for six years sputtered over bipartisan opposition to raising the gasoline tax. The shorter-term measure, which used general tax revenue to keep highway construction going, expires Sept. 30…

Lawmakers in both parties, including Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, already have said they doubt Congress can forge a consensus on the tax-financing issues and pass a bill that authorizes programs for five or six years as industry groups want.

It sounds like a conclusion is still a ways off. At the same time, there are powerful interests involved and a deadline for funding coming up. It would be interesting to see what happens if this gets instituted by the federal government before states make their own decisions. Could drivers end up getting taxed for their mileage by both Washington and their state capitals?