Fiscal Cliff Presents Gas Tax and High-Speed Rail Mysteries

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Cheryl is an expert on transportation policy and ridesharing at vRide.
November 25, 2012

Bipartisan House representatives hold a conference in front of the U.S. Capitol on what to do about the fiscal cliff.

The much-discussed “fiscal cliff” approaching on December 31 will be no less a danger point for transportation as it could be for healthcare, education, and many other crucial societal issues.

Probably the two most high-profile transportation issues on the line are a gas-tax to support infrastructure improvements and high-speed rail.

Gas tax

Historically the gas tax has been a funding source for highway construction and maintenance; transit; and enhancing transit, bus, carpool, biking and walking, and teleworking options.

But at times, some of that money has been used for deficit reduction or allocated by the states to other areas, leaving the highway system in disrepair. Whether you drive a lot, drive a little, or never drive at all, this isn’t good. If the carpools, vanpools, and bike lanes and shoulders do not have good existing roads on which to move, then users are even less likely to try out those options.

Gas-tax reform should be a high priority, but – because it is so political and will take a longer time to solve than what the fiscal-cliff deadline will allow – it is a discussion for another time.

Moving ahead

Congress approved a short-term fix this year called Moving Ahead for Progress for the 21st Century (MAP-21), which avoided raising the U.S. gas tax and instead dipped into nearly $19 billion in general taxpayer funds to pay for transportation upkeep across the nation – which can be positive and negative at the same time. A definite positive of this legislation is that it includes performance measures to make sure multi-modal options are seeing a proper share of the funds.

To make more progress on the country’s worsening highway and transit infrastructure, President Obama has proposed spending $556 billion over the next six years – which is above the current annual level of $52 billion.

It is difficult to predict how transportation funding will be included in the fiscal-cliff process, if at all. But the most likely sources are probably general taxes or a federal gas-tax increase. A tax based on the number of miles driven to replace the declining gas-tax revenue is much discussed, but realistically is a longer-term fix.

High-speed rail

President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would both like to advance high-speed rail as part of any transportation package, although that has its share of detractors in Congress. However, if not a national rail network, it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least one or two regional rail networks launch during Obama’s second term.

Transportation alternatives – ones like high-speed rail that get a lot of people out of “drive-alone” cars and “decongest” our highways – are almost always very cost effective and relatively inexpensive. They should be in the limelight even more in times of fiscal constraint.

And with something called a “fiscal cliff,” high-speed rail, bus, bicycling, and other transportation alternatives may be our only economical options moving forward.

One thing we know for sure, it will be an interesting December in the nation’s capital.

Photo by Talk Radio News Service

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