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A Taxing Solution to the Transportation Problem

Feb. 10, 2008
Updating the highways and surface transportation could cost $225 billion and take 50 years.

A Congressional commission tasked with fixing and updating the nation's transportation system and infrastructure has weighed in with its recommendations, which take a sweeping look at modernization needs over the next 50 years. Although the highways will get smarter (thanks to satellites, motion detectors, radio frequency identification and other technologies), chances are excellent that all passenger and commercial vehicles in 2058 will travel roads very much like the ones we have now.

The 12-member, bipartisan National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission was created by Congress in 2005 to develop a plan and make recommendations to ensure that the U.S. surface transportation system serves the need of the country well into the future. The full report, released in January 2008, is available at

The report suggests an annual investment of at least $225 billion for the next 50 years to upgrade to an advanced surface transportation system.

Not surprisingly, funding for this series of programs, if implemented according to plan, will come from the pockets of everybody who uses the roads, starting with a recommended increase in the Federal gas tax by 5-8 cents per gallon, per year for a five-year period, or 25-40 cents in total. Other proposed revenue streams include a vehicle miles traveled fee, tolls, peak-hour "congestion pricing" on Federal-aid highways in major metropolitan areas, a freight fee for freight projects, and ticket taxes for passenger rail improvements.

At the heart of the Commission's recommendations is a plan to replace over 100 existing programs with 10 outcome-based programs, with oversight from the U.S. Department of Transportation. These programs, according to the Commission, would focus on the following:

  1. Rebuilding America. No doubt prompted in part by the bridge collapse in Minneapolis last fall, this asset management program appears at the top of the Commission's list. Its aim is to keep crucial portions of the nation's infrastructure in a state of good repair, as efficiently and cost effectively as possible.
  2. Freight Transportation. The basic idea of this program is to increase capacity on interstate highways and toll roads, i.e., the roads most frequently traveled by national and regional trucking companies. One goal is to facilitate international trade and intermodal connections near port facilities, without adding time and costs to the supply chain.
  3. Congestion Relief. This program focuses on relieving big-city traffic jams with such strategies as expanded transit systems and additional highway capacity.
  4. Saving Lives. This program would establish national safety standards and would set a goal of reducing highway fatalities by 50% by 2025.
  5. Connecting America. This program would concentrate on the urban, suburban and rural communities that were not developed when the initial highway and rail infrastructure networks were created.
  6. Intercity Passenger Rail. This program would create an intercity passenger rail network comparable to world-class systems in other countries, with the primary aim of connecting regions and population centers within 500 miles of each other.
  7. Environmental Stewardship. This consolidated program replaces several existing environmental programs, and would focus on smoothing traffic flow, mitigating vehicular congestion related to rail crossing, encouraging use of intermodal freight options, encouraging alternative commute options such as carpooling and transit, scrapping and retrofitting older vehicles, and encouraging more energy-efficient construction and lighting materials in the transportation system, with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
  8. Energy Security. This program aims to accelerate the development of environmentally-friendly replacement fuels, and would work in conjunction with ongoing research programs of the U.S. Department of Energy, at a level of $200 million annually over the
    next decade.
  9. Federal Lands. This program would provide transportation access to Federal properties while respecting and preserving natural landscapes. Areas of focus include increased demand for recreational activities, energy/alternative energy sources and the need for adequate public transportation access.
  10. Research, Development and Technology. As the name implies, the basic idea for this program would be to monitor all relevant highway programs in the United States and abroad. Funds would be made available for areas where significant research gaps are identified.

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