Phineas Baxandall is a Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. PIRG and directs program on tax and budget issues as well as transportation. He often presents at conferences and has given invited testimony and public comment to state legislatures, Congress, and the U.S. Department of Transportation. His blogs appear on the National Journal Transportation Expert blog, Huffington Post and StreetsBlog. At U.S. PIRG, he has authored or co-authored dozens of reports, including a series examining the end of America’s driving boom, a series on infrastructure privatization, and a series on state government spending transparency.
U.S. PIRG recently released a milestone report titled “Who Pays for Roads?” in which they dispel some of the myths surrounding user fees and road funding.
Who Really Pays for Roads?
…one of the disconnects we found was that that very beginning premise is just wrong, that we’ve never had a completely user-fee paid transportation system and that it’s less and less of a user-fee system…What we found out was that the user fees, our gas taxes at various levels, were covering about 48% of total road fees.
We Need Smarter Investments
Some of the funding limitations we have in place can be real obstacles to the money going to the best place…We find it really outrageous that there can be so many thousands of structurally deficient bridges out there at the same time that there can be also some really debatable highway expansion projects going on.
High-Speed Rail Should Replace Short-Distance Flights
The kind of very fast high-speed rail that is common in Europe and Japan really makes sense as a way to replace short-distance plane travel, which is the most inefficient plane travel because it’s so costly to actually get the plane up in the air…It’s something which will be a real boon to California when they do build it, and I think that once that happens the rest of the country will start to say “Hey, we want that too.”
Citizens Can Engage on the Local Level
Unfortunately, right now Congress seems like it is in such an endless spin cycle of going nowhere on this issue. I honestly think that efforts are best spent at the local level where you can see some real movement in cities and some states in trying to really address transportation issues…People can relate to where their money is going a lot easier.
Low Interest Rates Justify Infra Investments
…even if you were just going to be addressing the repair needs that we have, it should be one of our top investment priorities. Interest rates have been so low that, taking it from a business point of view, the rate of return that you would need on infrastructure investments is low enough that most of that investment is justified.
Building for Millennials
We should not be just focused on trying to build out the transportation visions of our parents. The millennials are quickly going to be the chief users of America’s transportation system…They are the future users of what we decide to build today, so we should be looking to them for preferences, for deciding what kinds of things to build.
U.S.PIRG: Putting Transportation Money In the Right Places
We want to see transportation money being spent where it’s going to be needed for the 21st century. Often that means more on public transportation, bikeways and walkways, as well as more on fixing the roads and bridges we already have…We don’t think that every infrastructure dollar is equally good, but we definitely think that there needs to be more of an emphasis on investment in infrastructure in the years ahead.