President Trump’s infrastructure plan still lacks detail, but one thing seems certain. It will not be just one more nationalized road-building bill. Nor will it continue the harmful tradition of the federal government calling all the shots and providing all the funds.
Trump wants to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land.” But in his own words from his State of the Union address, “every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private-sector investment.”
His administration has made clear an intention to shift this obligation away from Washington and toward the states. This is the right approach to upgrading the nation’s infrastructure. What’s more, the proper moment for it has arrived. That is to say, even if this hadn’t been Trump’s preferred approach, he would probably have been forced to adopt it anyway.
This begins with the lifting of the ban on states tolling interstate highways, something former President Barack Obama also supported. EZ-Pass technology has improved and spread from New York in all directions in the past 20 years, making expanded tolling easy and removing congestion, hassle, and expense associated with it in former years. Only about 6 percent of interstate highways miles are tolled today, and many more could stand to be.
Tolling is a fairer method of paying for roads than broad-based gas taxes or government borrowing, because the most rational policy, and the most conservative, is that users be made to pay directly wherever possible. In this case, the heaviest users and damagers of roads, truckers, should pay for the wear they inflict. That's why their tolls are higher. This is much better than burdening individual taxpayers or even disproportionately burdening private drivers who cross state lines far less frequently.
At least one trucking trade group is pushing for a user fee that falls on everyone who purchases motor fuel. This is hardly surprising, and it bolsters the case for our own preference.
Trump’s main goal in this infrastructure package should be to give states the means to control their own infrastructure and to shrink the role of the federal government. That’s not just because we believe in smaller government and decision-making at the most conveniently local level, although we do, but because the federal role already is shrinking through inertia, and has been for some time.
The Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone argued persuasively three years ago that the federal role in transportation was on its way to becoming the first casualty of Congress’s inability to handle its finances. Nothing has changed in the time since to arrest this trend, and Trump’s infrastructure bill should not attempt to arrest it.
Congress has long lacked sufficient courage to raise the gas tax to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. It is equally unwilling to free up federal resources for roads and bridges by reforming entitlements or cutting spending elsewhere. So in the absence of a transportation bill, states have already stepped into the breach with their own plans to finance infrastructure improvements. At the time Barone wrote the article, more than 30 states had passed plans to finance transportation improvements in the last three years, whether through toll increases, borrowing, or dedicated taxes. More state bills have passed recently, with more than 180 enacted in 2016 alone to fund roads, bridges, airports, and seaports.
The Brookings Institution last month pointed out the growing role of local governments in funding transportation investments, thanks again in part to “the lack of long-term certainty concerning major federal transportation funding sources like the Highway Trust Fund.”
By devolving more responsibility to state and local governments, Trump is swimming with a surging tide toward a positive policy outcome. We support his plans as broadly outlined, and we look forward to seeing more specifics.