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A new generation of funding schemes turns the "user fee" on its head.

The cost of constructing and maintaining America’s surface transportation network has long, in theory, been borne by the people who use it most. This is the idea behind the gas tax: The more you drive on our shared roads, the more fuel you have to buy, the more you chip in through taxes to pay for said roads. As it was originally conceived, the gas tax was a kind of user fee, linking what people pay into the system directly to how much they rely on it.

For a variety of well-documented reasons, this compact has been crumbling. Federal and state gas-tax rates haven’t kept pace with inflation. And when gas taxes were first conceived early in the last century, most cars had roughly the same fuel efficiency; now a 50 mile-per-gallon Prius shares the road with an 8 mile-per-gallon rusting pickup truck. That imbalance spoils some of the fairness first baked into the concept.

In this climate, several states are now looking for transportation revenue in entirely new places. The state of Virginia this past weekend passed a landmark transportation bill that aims to raise money for roads and mass transit in part by increasing the state sales tax on nonfood merchandise, from 5 to 5.3 percent (legislators also eliminated the state’s 17.5 cent gas tax entirely in favor or a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on motor fuels). This means that people in the state who purchase school supplies and patio sets and cell phones will help foot the bill for transportation projects.

The idea – particularly in its original incarnation – was widely criticized by transportation advocates who argued that the state was severing the long-standing link between transportation use and funding for it (and precisely at a time when many experts are calling for the opposite solution: a strict vehicle-miles-traveled user fee).

More recently, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has proposed an even more peculiar idea: selling off 37 state-owned power and heating plants to pay off highway bonds. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel pointed out: “The move could also have the unexpected effect of linking the prices paid by some utility customers to the financing of the state's road system.”

This incongruous consequence would seem to push the state even farther from the conceptual benefits of a user fee. Charge people directly for using a system, and they may be incentivized to use less of it. But charge them for appliances and utilities to fund transportation, and any incentive disappears (or starts getting convoluted).

There is, however, one argument that complicates this whole picture, and that is that by funding transportation primarily through user fees (or talking about the problem that way), we run the risk of behaving as if transportation exists solely to transport people. Strong transportation networks are integral to whole regional economies. They’re connected to housing and jobs and opportunity. And whether or not you drive on a road, or ride in a subway, you likely still benefit from the presence of those things when they function efficiently in your area (or you’re likely harmed when they’re falling apart).

This isn’t to say that everyone in a community should pay equally for roads or mass transit, whether they use them or not (there is also a separate argument to be had over the best allocation of funding between these two poles). But as we grope around for new transportation funding solutions in an age when the old gas tax no longer suffices, it’s worth remembering that people who “use” transportation are not the only ones impacted by it. When low-income residents can connect to jobs by buses riding down publicly paved roads, driving taxpayers elsewhere in the city benefit. When smarter road networks reduce congestion, and the smog that comes with it, plenty of people who never get in a car benefit from that, too.

Top image: Paul Cowan/Shutterstock

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