Policy Institutes

REAL ID: Walking Dead

Cato Op-Eds - Mon, 05/12/2014 - 15:41

Jim Harper

The REAL ID Act is a federal law that calls on states to knit their driver licensing systems together into a national ID. Congress passed it nine years ago yesterday, setting a three-year deadline for state compliance.

You might think that a program would be dead if it failed to materialize after more than triple the time Congress gave for its implementation. But REAL ID is walking dead.

After the law passed, half the states in the country passed resolutions objecting to REAL ID or laws barring their states from complying. And the Department of Homeland Security has pushed back the deadline again and again and again. But the federal government keeps funding REAL ID, and state bureaucrats keep plodding forward with the national ID system.

In a Policy Analysis released today, we examined the progress of REAL ID in states around the country. REAL ID: A State-by-State Update reveals that some states’ legislatures have backtracked on their opposition to the national ID law. Some motor vehicle bureaucrats have quietly moved forward with REAL ID compliance contrary to state policy. And in some states, motor vehicle bureaucrats have worked to undercut state policy opposing REAL ID and the national ID system.

Louisiana recently reversed course and embraced the national ID law. The District of Columbia began requiring drivers to get REAL ID-compliant licenses effective May 1st.

Funds for implementing REAL ID come from DHS annual budget, which is appropriated by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees’ homeland security subcommittees. Congress has put around $50 million a year toward REAL ID in recent years, part of $300 to $500 million a year it spends on identification and tracking programs.

The alternative is better: Congress could save money and protect liberty if it fully defunded REAL ID. State political leaders should check to see if the administrators who work under them are building a national ID contrary to state policy, or if bureaucrats are lobbying to put the legislature behind the national ID program.

It hasn’t been implemented, but because it hasn’t been repealed or defunded, REAL ID awaits the day when the political winds blow in favor of a national ID.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Michael Sam and the Cost of Discrimination

Cato Op-Eds - Mon, 05/12/2014 - 14:30

David Boaz

Classical liberals and libertarians have always sought a world in which people are judged as individuals, not as members of groups. Over the centuries most societies have been arranged as hierarchies, with people assigned to classes by birth. The great liberal historian Henry Sumner Maine wrote that the history of civilization was a movement from a society of status to a society of contract — that is, from a society in which each person was born into his place and was defined by his status to one in which the relationships among individuals are determined by free consent and agreement. Liberals argued for “la carrière ouverte aux talents” (“opportunity to the talented”).

Individuals may also be classified by race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. One of the great achievements of American society has been the progressive extension of the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – to people who had been excluded from them. That process has included the abolition of slavery, the civil rights revolution, the women’s liberation movement, more recently the gay rights movement.

Lately some people have proclaimed victory in the battle for equal treatment of gays and lesbians. Last month a group of gay marriage supporters urged their allies to be magnanimous in the final period of the “hard-won victory over a social order in which LGBT people were fired, harassed, and socially marginalized” and not to seek to punish remaining dissenters from the new perspective.

But this past weekend has reminded us that we haven’t quite achieved “opportunity to the talented.” Michael Sam was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the country’s strongest football conference, yet many people wondered if any NFL team would draft the league’s first openly gay player. Turns out they were right to wonder. Here’s a revealing chart published in yesterday’s Washington Post (based on data from pro-football-reference.com and published alongside this article in the print edition but apparently not online).

Every other SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the past decade, including the athlete who shared the award this year with Michael Sam, was among the top 33 picks in the draft, and only one was below number 17. Does that mean that being gay cost Michael Sam 232 places in the draft, compared to his Co-Defensive Player of the Year? Maybe not. There are doubts about Sam’s abilities at the professional level. But there are doubts about many of the players who were drafted ahead of him, in the first 248 picks this year. Looking at this chart, I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sam paid a price for being openly gay. That’s why classical liberals – which in this broad sense should encompass most American libertarians, liberals, and conservatives – should continue to press for a society in which the careers are truly open to the talents. That doesn’t mean we need laws, regulations, or mandates. It means that we want to live in a society that is open to talent wherever it appears. As Scott Shackford writes at Reason, Sam’s drafting is “a significant cultural development toward a country that actually doesn’t care about individual sexual orientation. The apathetic should celebrate this development, as it is a harbinger of a future where such revelations become less and less of a big deal.” Let’s continue to look forward to a society in which it’s not news that a Jewish, Catholic, African-American, Mormon, redneck, or gay person achieves a personal goal.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Cut Spending Because Government Hurting Nation

Cato Op-Eds - Mon, 05/12/2014 - 14:17

Chris Edwards

I have posted an updated plan to cut spending by one fifth and balance the federal budget. These cuts are not the only ones needed, but they are a mix of reasonable reforms spread broadly across the government.

A new poll discussed in Govexec.com finds that “Americans have more confidence in the abilities of individuals and local organizations to effect positive political and social change in this country than they do in the federal government … Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they believed the federal government was ‘mostly hurting’ the country with respect to the ‘major issues and challenges’ confronting America today.”

My fellow Americans, you have it exactly right. The enormous size of the federal government is harming the economy, society, individual freedom, and good governance in the nation. That is why spending cuts would be a good idea whether or not the federal government was running budget deficits.

Some economists claim that cutting government spending would hurt the economy, but that idea is based on faulty Keynesian theories. In fact, federal spending cuts would shift resources from often mismanaged and damaging government programs to more productive private sector activities, thus increasing overall productivity, output, and incomes.

The federal government’s fiscal mess is an opportunity to make reforms that would both spur growth and expand freedom. My new plan includes a menu of cuts to individual subsidies, business subsidies, so-called entitlements, aid to the states, and the military. There are also numerous activities that can be removed from the federal budget by privatization, such as air traffic control, passenger rail, and electric utilities.

These and other reforms are discussed further in essays at DownsizingGovernment.org.

Categories: Policy Institutes

The Cost of Regulation

Cato Op-Eds - Mon, 05/12/2014 - 10:52

John H. Cochrane

Gordon Crovitz has a nice piece in the Wall Street Journal, Monday May 5, titled “The end of the permissionless web” which sparks several thoughts.

What has made the Internet revolutionary is that it’s permissionless. No one had to get approval from Washington or city hall to offer Google searches, Facebook  profiles or Apple  apps, as Adam Thierer of George Mason University notes in his new book, “Permissionless Innovation.” [Available free and ungated here. - JC]

The central fault line in technology policy debates today can be thought of as ‘the permission question,’ ” Mr. Thierer writes. “Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”

This brings to mind a recent discussion I’ve had with Glen Weyl and Eric Posner on their proposal for a financial FDA, in which financial companies have to get prior approval for any new products (here and here). I don’t think I ever expressed well just how much it strangles growth and innovation for companies to have to prove ahead of time, to the satisfaction of discretionary regulators and politicians, that their products are good. The following examples make the point forcefully.

That strangulation is especially clear in these examples since they show that so much regulation serves to prop up the profits of incumbents and to protect them from competition.  If Uber had to ask permission ahead of time, it never would have happened, because the point of regulation is to protect the taxi industry. Uber  only happened now because it grew so fast and so well that its customers became a political force, in a way that (say) jitney customers never did.

In a recent New York Times opinion article, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman…argues: “The only question is how long it will take for these cyber cowboys to realize that working with the sheriffs is both good business and the right thing to do.”

“Working with the sheriffs.” What a nice way to express the trade of regulatory blessing and protection in return for political support that poisons our economy and democracy.

Mr. Schneiderman has targeted Airbnb, an online service that lets users easily rent homes or apartments for short-term stays, giving travelers a new option. The hotel industry, concerned about being disrupted, is lobbying hard to kill the upstart. …costly regulatory overreach will inevitably suppress new startups from trying to compete.

I think we can find a better word for “competitors eating your lunch by providing better cheaper service” than “disrupted.”

Like Airbnb, mobile-phone app Uber creates a marketplace directly linking buyers and sellers—in its case, passengers and drivers—outside the ornate regulations of analog-era municipal taxi commissions. Brussels, Seattle and Miami have banned or strictly limited Uber cars. New York’s Mr. Schneiderman objects to the company’s practice of pricing more when demand is heavy. The alternative is severely restricted supply, as anyone knows who has tried to hail a cab in the rain.

The drone industry in the U.S. has been grounded because the Federal Aviation Administration has banned commercial use of drones pending new regulations. Meanwhile, countries such as Canada and Australia encourage drones. “As American regulators struggle to come up with a rulebook for the fast-moving industry,” Toronto’s Globe and Mail bragged recently, “Canada has emerged as perhaps the center of commercial drone technology—from Ontario farmlands to Alberta’s oil sands.”

Other examples include the Food and Drug Administration’s scrutiny of 23andMe’s marketing, which forced the company to stop offering health data from its at-home $99 genetics-analysis kit, and prohibitions against selling self-driving cars, which have left the U.S. in the dust behind less regulated Europe.

“left the U.S. in the dust behind less regulated Europe” is not a phrase I thought I’d hear in my lifetime. (Monday morning and already grumpy…)

This sparks a second and larger thought. The big macroeconomic question is, why is US growth so stagnant? The Keynesian side has one simple answer: lack of “demand,” easily curable by spending a lot of money, even if that spending is totally wasted. None of these stories matter. The “supply” or, better, “equilibrium” answer is that we have thrown a lot of sand in the gears, and maybe we should take the same market-liberalization diagnosis and cures that we offer Greece and Italy.

The hard question for both sides is to quantify their frictions. How much of the perceived shortfall in GDP or GDP growth comes from your mechanism? Keynesians have not, that I know of, come up with any independent measure of lack of demand.  Likewise, how much of our stagnant GDP growth comes from these regulatory impediments? At least here we all know the sign. We can all see regulatory strangulation as a major factor in foreign countries. But it is devilishly difficult to come up with a solid number.  I think equilibrium macro (or macro as micro, or macro as growth theory) gets short shrift just because it’s hard to come up with the numbers, and so much easier to say “well, it must be lack of demand.”  But coming up with a serious measurement strikes me as a very useful exercise. Hence, I added the “thesis topics” label.

[Cross-posted from The Grumpy Economist blog]

Categories: Policy Institutes

Piketty Should Focus on Increasing the Scope of Markets, Not Expanding the Power of Government

Cato Op-Eds - Mon, 05/12/2014 - 08:33

James A. Dorn

In his best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), French economist Thomas Piketty is concerned with equality of outcome, not equality under a rule of law safeguarding one’s unalienable rights to liberty and property. 

He finds that inequality of income and wealth is increasing as the return on capital assets exceeds the growth of real GDP.  His policy for reducing inequality is to use the power of government to impose very high marginal tax rates on the incomes of the rich and near rich, and also impose an annual wealth tax.  His goal is “to put an end to such incomes.”

Piketty’s leveling schemes in the pursuit of “social justice” would undermine the primacy of property rights under the U.S. Constitution, adversely affect incentives to save and invest, stifle entrepreneurship, and slow economic growth. He seems more interested in penalizing the rich than in thinking of ways to create wealth by expanding opportunities for market exchange.

Underlying his approach to equality is the false idea that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor.  He ignores the reality that voluntary exchanges in the marketplace make parties to the trades better off—and wealth is created.

He also ignores the wisdom of the late development economist Peter Bauer who warned: “The unholy grail of economic equality would exchange the promised reduction or removal of differences in income and wealth for much greater actual inequality of power between rulers and subjects.” 

Capital is best understood as a bundle of ownership rights—in particular, the right to sell one’s property and the right to receive the income from that property.  When those rights are attenuated, capital is destroyed. 

Gary Becker, the late Nobel laureate economist, showed the importance of human capital (i.e., the skills individuals acquire through education and training) for a person’s future income and economic growth. High marginal income tax rates and wealth taxes dampen incentives to invest in human and non-human capital—and when investment slows so will economic growth. 

Imposing a 50 percent marginal tax rate on individuals with incomes starting at  $200,000 and increasing that rate to 80 percent at $500,000, as Piketty proposes, would heavily penalize those who have invested in their human capital and discourage others from doing so.

Likewise, Piketty’s proposed wealth tax would translate into a very high tax on the income from non-human capital.  For example, with some simplifying assumptions, a 2 percent wealth tax is equivalent to a tax rate of 67 percent on capital income if the discount rate is 3 percent.  Piketty proposes a 5 to 10 percent annual tax on the net worth of individuals with at least $1 billion in assets.  A 10 percent wealth tax translates into a tax on capital income of 333 percent (assuming a discount rate of 3 percent).

Such confiscatory tax rates would not raise much revenue because the rich would move to low tax regimes like Hong Kong that relish economic freedom.  That is why Piketty wants a global wealth tax—but that’s pie in the sky.

The high taxes on capital would ultimately harm workers in those countries that followed Piketty’s policies, as incomes grew more slowly. Rich capitalists are not the enemy of poor workers.  Capital freedom and private property allow for upward mobility.    

Piketty does the economics profession a disservice by focusing on outcomes rather than institutions, incentives, and processes.  He believes more in the power of government than in the power of markets to transform people’s lives.  History has shown that individuals have a natural desire to improve themselves and that economic freedom—not the redistributive state—is the key to human progress.

 Instead of calling for higher taxes to reduce the return on capital, Piketty would be on firmer ground by arguing for an increase in economic freedom and more limited government to increase the range of choices open to people. 

Categories: Policy Institutes

Voter ID Laws and Rights of Convicted Felons

Cato Op-Eds - Sat, 05/10/2014 - 10:55

Robert A. Levy

Nothing in the Constitution requires voter ID laws. Nor does any provision bar voter ID laws, except: (1) the 14th Amendment forecloses state denial of equal protection of the laws to any person, and (2) the 15th Amendment forecloses discrimination by race in determining who can vote.

Accordingly, a voter ID law would be unconstitutional if it discriminated by race without a compelling state justification.  Put differently, to justify a discriminatory voter ID law, a state would have to show: (a) there’s significant voter fraud, (b) the law would fix the problem; and (c) there’s no other way to accomplish the same ends without discriminating.

The convicted felon problem is more complicated.  Rand Paul argues that 180,000 convicted felons in Kentucky should be allowed to vote. Does the constitution support that view?  Of course, prisoners can be denied the right to vote while in prison.  By committing a felony, they forfeit certain rights, which can even include the most fundamental right – the right to liberty.  But after a felon completes his sentence, his voting rights should (in my view) be restored.

Indeed, if the law denying his voting rights were passed after his commission of the felony, that law would be unconstitutional because it’s ex post facto.  If the law were passed prior to his commission of the felony, it would still be subject to the test noted above.  That is, government would have to show a compelling need for the discriminatory law, its effectiveness at satisfying that need, and no less discriminatory means of accomplishing the same ends.  Frankly, I doubt that many, if any, states can make that showing.

To complicate matters still further:  The threshold question is whether there’s discrimination.  The constitutional test is based on discriminatory intent – i.e., whether the purpose of the law is to discriminate. Some legal authorities argue, however, that section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prevents states from passing laws that are neutral on their face but have a discriminatory impact.  For example, a law that applied neutrally to all convicted felons may not have been intended to discriminate by race, but because a disproportionate number of felons are African Americans, the law would have a discriminatory effect.

Notwithstanding the legal controversy:  From a policy perspective, I would restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison terms.  I see no compelling reason to deny such rights.  Decreasing the number of Democratic voters is not a legitimate reason. 

Ideally, states (not the feds) should enact such laws.  Federal re-enfranchisement is constitutionally suspect.  Any federal statute to remedy state discrimination would have to be congruent and proportional to the discrimination.  A one-size-fits-all federal remedy probably wouldn’t pass muster.  Individual states might even prefer a limited rather than blanket restoration, based on (say) the nature and severity of the crime, any history of recidivism, and the length of time since release from prison.

[As an aside, you’ll likely hear some of these same arguments with respect to restoring gun rights to non-violent felons.  Predictably (and somewhat hypocritically), many legislators switch roles, with conservatives favoring and liberals opposing restoration.]

Categories: Policy Institutes

The Case for Fishery Property Rights

Cato Op-Eds - Fri, 05/09/2014 - 16:32

Peter Van Doren

In the last few days, some commentators have praised the role of federal regulation in enhancing the health of fishing stocks. Brad Plumer at Vox.com, Paul Krugman at the New York Times, and Kevin Grier at Cherokee Gothic, have all weighed in.

The current issue of Regulation features a cover story that offers insight into what government interventions work and what doesn’t in the management of fisheries.

Authors Jonathan Adler and Nathaniel Stewart argue that fisheries are a classic example of what economists call the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Open access resources such as fishing stocks are overharvested because no one owns the rights to the harvest. Instead, everyone has an incentive to grab what fish they can before another boat does.

The traditional policy response to the commons problem has been regulating the length of the fishing season or limiting the total amount of fish that can be caught. The problem is these policies don’t change the incentives that lead fishermen to race after and grab as many fish as they can. For example, codfish quotas in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank were cut 77% and 61%, respectively in 2013. Such regulations do not fix the problem because the incentives for boats to get faster or bigger remain.

A better solution would be a system of Individual Transferable Quotas. These quotas assign to individuals a right to a small portion of the total allowed catch in a fishery. This “catch share” ends the incentive to race and grab because a fisher owns the rights to a defined amount of fish, and no one can take that right from him. A 2012 study of 15 catch-share programs in the United States and Canada found that, because the programs worked so well, fishinging seasons were lengthened from 63 to 245 days. And the introduction of the catch-share systems allowed fish populations to recover from previous overharvesting. After five years of catch share implementation, catch limits increased 13 percent on average.

Fishery property rights a vast improvement over traditional fisheries regulation.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Transportation Cliff or Pothole?

Cato Op-Eds - Fri, 05/09/2014 - 09:24

Randal O'Toole

Recent news reports have zeroed in on Washington’s next “cliff,” the “transportation cliff” that is expected to happen when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money sometime this summer. Most of those articles have a hidden agenda: to increase spending for transit even though transit now gets 20 percent of federal surface transport dollars but carries little more than 1 percent of the travel carried by automobiles (about 55 billion passenger miles by transit vs. 4.3 trillion passenger miles in cars and light trucks). This post will explain some of the politics of the transportation cliff.

1. Why are we about to go off a transportation cliff?

Since 1956, federal highway programs have been financed with federal gasoline taxes. Those revenues go into the so-called Highway Trust Fund (“so-called” because it’s no longer very trustworthy) and then are distributed to the states for highway construction and maintenance. In 1982, Congress began dedicating a small but growing share of gas taxes to transit. Today, more than 20 percent of federal gas taxes are spent on transit, and there is no guarantee that the remaining 80 percent goes for highways, as Congress often diverts some of that money to such things as bike paths, national park visitor centers, museums, and other local pork barrel projects.

Congress reauthorizes this spending every few years. Traditionally, an authorization bill provides a spending ceiling. But the 2005 reauthorization bill made spending mandatory, meaning the ceiling was also the floor. (In 2012, Congress passed another reauthorization bill. That one didn’t mandate spending, but Congress went ahead and spent to the limit anyway, knowing full well that this would mean the Highway Trust Fund would be exhausted by sometime in 2014.)

When the 2008 financial crisis led to a reduction in driving, gas tax revenues failed to keep up with spending. Since then, Congress has had to supplement gas taxes with about $55 billion in general funds in order to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money.

Anti-auto interest groups often portray these supplements as highway subsidies. But they would not be necessary if Congress weren’t diverting 20 percent of gas tax revenues to transit. Although more money goes to highways than to transit, because highways are so much more heavily used, federal subsidies to transit are about 80 times as great, per passenger mile, as federal subsidies to highways.

2. What will happen if we go over the transportation cliff?

In the past, states made their highway and transportation budgets assuming they will get a steady flow of federal dollars. But as transportation expert Ken Orski has shown, states have already realized they can’t count on a steady stream of federal funds and at least half have taken steps to back away from federal dependence.

If Congress goes over the transportation cliff, it won’t mean a sudden halt to highway projects and transit systems. Instead, states will spend money out of their own accounts, possibly getting short-term loans until the federal funding situation is resolved. Rather than a transportation cliff, it would be more accurate to describe current events as a “transportation pothole.” But while everyone expects Congress to soon supplement the Trust Fund, this particular pothole will give more states incentives to find alternative sources of funding.

The cliff isn’t the real issue. Instead, it is the reauthorization bill. Though most transportation reauthorization bills last six years, the 2012 bill expires this September. All of the posturing about the cliff is really an effort to promote changes in a new reauthorization bill.

3. What is the Obama administration’s position?

President Obama has proposed to replace the 2012 law with the “GROW AMERICA Act,” which absurdly stands for “Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America.” This bill would increase overall transportation spending by 38 percent, including a 22 percent increase in highway spending and a whopping 70 percent increase in transit funding.

Where would all that new money come from? Obama has also proposed to reform corporate taxes, which is supposed to reduce them in the long run but somehow produce a $150 billion one-time increase in revenues over 10 years. Obama proposes to spend four years of this increase on transportation. After that, the Highway Trust Fund would go over another transportation cliff.

There are a lot problems with this proposal. Congress hasn’t agreed to corporate tax reform, nor has it agreed to dedicate any revenues from that reform to transportation. The one-time injection of funds still leaves federal transportation programs unsustainable in the long run. Perhaps most important, increasing transportation’s dependence on general funds will make it less accountable to users and more accountable to pork-barrel politicians.

Historically, most federal transportation money is in “formula funds,” meaning it is distributed to states based on such factors as state populations, land areas, and road miles. Such funds are hard to use as pork. But Obama wants much, if not most, of the new spending in competitive grant programs, which supposedly allows the money to be spent where it is most needed. But in reality, competitive grants give the administration enormous power to reward the faithful and punish opponents. For example, Obama’s last grant of $2.5 billion to the California high-speed rail project came with a mandate that the money be spent in the congressional districts of two Democrats who were facing stiff opposition in an election that took place a few weeks after the grant was awarded. (They narrowly won re-election.)

4. What is Congress’ position?

Most observers assume that the GROW AMERICA bill is DOA. While House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster has promised to have a new reauthorization bill “on time,” there is still likely to be a major fight in Congress.

In 2012, the House Transportation Committee passed a bill that reduced spending to little more than revenues. But they couldn’t get the House as a whole to approve the bill because Republicans representing big cities objected to reduced federal spending on transit. So Congress eventually passed a version of the Senate bill, which spent about $15 billion a year more than revenues. That’s why we’re headed for a transportation pothole today.

The 2012 election failed to change the balance of power that led to those conflicts, so Congress is unlikely to pass a long-term bill in 2014. Instead, the push will be to supplement the trust fund and pass another two-year bill that continues the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo means more congestion and more wasteful spending on obsolete rail projects.

5. Do we need to increase spending to keep America’s highways from crumbling?

For several years, there has been an almost continuous drumbeat about “crumbling infrastructure” which naturally carries over into the Highway Trust Fund debate. “Nearly one in four of America’s bridges [are] either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” says the Washington Post.

In fact, state highways are in excellent condition. The number of bridges that are “structurally deficient,” meaning worn out and requiring extra maintenance, has steadily declined from nearly 119,000 in 1992 to less than 67,000 in 2012, and now stands at less than 11 percent of the total. “Functionally obsolete” bridges represent the other 14 percent of the Post’s “one in four,” but these are simply bridges that have lower clearances, narrower lanes, or other issues that might slow traffic but not create serious problems. As for the 11 percent that are structurally deficient, few are in any danger of falling down: the recent bridge collapses in Minnesota and Washington states were due to design flaws, not maintenance failures.

A disproportionate share of the structurally deficient bridges are locally owned, not state owned. While states pay for most of their roads out of gas taxes, tolls, and other user fees, local governments rely heavily on sales taxes, property taxes, and other general funds. This underscores the importance of funding transportation out of user fees, not general funds.

6. Do we need to increase spending on transit?

Many of the groups most eager to portray the transportation pothole as a crisis are really interested in increasing transit spending. Yet there is virtually no relationship between transit subsidies and transit ridership. Since 1970, federal, state, and local governments have collectively spent more than a trillion dollars (in today’s dollars) subsidizing transit, yet transit ridership has declined from nearly 50 annual trips per urban resident in 1970 to around 44 annual trips today.

The real goal of increased transit spending is to build new rail lines. Such lines mean increased profits for rail contractors and excuses for urban planners to increase urban densities because people living in dense housing are supposedly more likely to ride transit than drive.

At the same time, while highways and bridges are in pretty good shape, our transit systems are not. Rail transit lines suffer from a $60 billion maintenance backlog. That backlog is growing because transit agencies are putting less money into maintenance than is needed to keep transit lines in their current state of poor repair.

The problem is that politicians prefer to fund new transit lines rather than maintain existing ones. Peter Rogoff, who until recently was the head of the Federal Transit Administration, even complained that transit agencies with crumbling systems still applied for funds to build new rail lines that they couldn’t afford to maintain. “If you can’t afford to operate the system you have,” he asked, “why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?” Having said that, he continued to give out grants for new rail lines because Congress effectively required him to do so.

In 2012, about 30 percent of the money spent on highways came from general funds, mostly at the local level, but 75 percent of the money spent on transit came from general funds. That made transit agencies far more responsive to unions, rail contractors, and other special interests than to transport users, which is the main reason why transit systems are in such poor shape.

7. Should we raise gas taxes?

Raising federal gas taxes by 10 cents per gallon over the current 18.4 cents could allow Congress to continue to spend on both highways and transit at current or increased levels. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has even proposed a 15-cents-per-gallon tax increase. Proponents of such an increase, including Blumenauer, want to see even more money flowing into transit and the construction of new rail projects.

In the long run, however, such an increase will still run into a transportation cliff. This is partly because Congress is likely to fully spend whatever revenues come in, and partly because a combination of inflation and increasingly fuel-efficient cars will reduce long-term revenues no matter what the tax.

Gas taxes function more of a user fee than sales, income, or other general taxes. But they are an imperfect user fee, as they don’t give signals to users about the costs of the facilities they use and don’t give signals to highway providers about the real demand for the roads they build.

8. What’s the solution?

In the immediate term, Congress will no doubt supplement the Highway Trust Fund with another $8 billion to $10 billion in general (meaning borrowed) funds. Beyond that, Congress needs to curb transportation spending so that it is no more than revenues.

In the long run, we need to find a better way to pay for transportation than gas taxes. For highways, that means mileage-based user fees. That will not only assure adequate funds for maintenance and improvements, but also enable the use of variable fees, which could virtually eliminate the traffic congestion that costs Americans $200 billion per year. One issue is that, if roads are funded out of mileage-based fees, there won’t be any need for federal involvement, which is good for those who want to devolve federal power to the states but bad for members of Congress who want to get credit for giving people money.

Meanwhile, most if not all transit costs should be funded out of fares, not taxes. Funding transit out of fares means relying more on buses and halting all or nearly all rail expansions. The best way to do this is to privatize transit, as private operators will be focused on serving users while public agencies end up serving mainly transit unions and suppliers. If Congress or the states feel the need to support low-income transit riders or other transit-dependent people, they should do so using transportation vouchers, not by subsidizing unresponsive transit agencies.

None of this will happen so long as Congress remains focused on increasing revenues to spend on special interest groups. Instead, Congress needs to recognize that transportation facilities are primary for transportation users, not unions, not rail car manufacturers, and not engineering and design firms.

Categories: Policy Institutes

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