Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bush administration goes forward - on roads anyway

Whilst many pundits decry the Bush Administration as a “disaster” as if it were self evident, it is clear to me that in the field of transport, it is light years ahead of past administrations of both colours.

The current Transportation Secretary Mary Peters (and her last significant predecessor, Norm Mineta) have both made the very clear and blunt points – the status quo doesn’t work. Environmentalists may be surprised that the Bush administration is strongly supportive of road pricing, instead of ongoing politically driven funding of roads and public transport.
Some of the best points she made at a recent meeting of Governors at the White House were:

“in the era of a government mandated monopoly in telecommunications and price controls you'd get a recording: "I'm sorry all circuits are busy. Please try again later." "Your call couldn’t go through the system for the same reason your car can’t get through rush hour – poor pricing," Peters said.”

That's the fundamental point. People put up with chronic traffic congestion roads, but wouldn't with other infrastructure - and it is due to lack of pricing and poor quality investment - those are both due to government's running roads in the same old Soviet era way. She also points out that throwing taxpayer money at the problem hasn't worked:
"The failings of federal tax and earmark programs she said are highlighted by the 300% increase in traffic congestion in the past 25 years while spending on roads and transit is doubling every ten years."

Think also about healthcare, how throwing money at that simply isn't working either. None of this should be a surprise.
"There is no greater symptom of failure than the fact that Americans simply don’t support putting more money into this broken system. Poll after poll shows strong opposition to traditional fuel taxes. The public ranks gas taxes as among the least fair taxes at the federal, state and local levels. And they are rightfully suspicious that higher taxes will (not) translate into more efficient transportation systems."

Quite right too. Fuel taxes are charges for buying fuel, not buying road use. While New Zealand has only just moved to spend all central government fuel taxes on transport (note this includes public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure), the temptation during hard times will always be to use it for general revenue.

"More and more people are seeing that direct charges offer a better deal for taxpayers than increasing dependence on dysfunctional sources like federal gasoline taxes. This simple but powerful technology unlocks enormous new opportunities for communities BOTH to attract new investment capital AND to manage congestion through variable prices."

So let the private sector in and the market mechanism of price in. Letting them both do it removes the political albatross that doing either wont work well. London's congestion charge is severely hamstrung by the political agenda of Ken Livingstone which gives a significant portion of London traffic a discount or exemption, but also earmarks the money for a lot of buses, many of which carry few people.

Hopefully her initiatives to set free private capital for investment in highways at the federal and state levels, set free the price mechanism for charging for highway use, ending "earmarked" pork barrel funding for roads and getting better results from what federal spending that remains will not be jeopardised by the games of Obama, McCain and Clinton. I am not optimistic, but these baby steps are all in the right direction, and are worth watching. It also shows there is a bit of free market thinking in the Bush administration after all.

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