It’s been nearly two months since I first delved into the transportation issue, with an implied pledge to revisit the issue later. Well, it’s long past later (at least to me), but I finally have had a chance to think things through, and now I have a transportation policy with which I’m fairly comfortable. I can’t call it “Part II,” because I am more refining an altering what I posted earlier, not adding to it. I also won’t call it a plan because, as will soon be seen, to call it such would imply it is something it is not. Thus it is my refined policy – and based on the “debate” out there, it’s a pretty radical one.
My transportation policy comes in four parts.
Part 1: All secondary road maintenance and construction would be downloaded to the localities. They would decide what to build, what to maintain, and who would pay. Highway and primary road maintenance (i.e., the ones not numbered 600 or higher) would remain the state’s responsibility, but that’s it. State funding for secondary and city roads would come to an end.
Part 2: No regional authorities to deal with transportation issues unless Part 1 is implemented. As for the authorities themselves, they must be formed by the localities voluntarily, i.e. not forced from Richmond, and obviously they cannot have taxing power. Nor can they be granted tax revenue from the state – only county revenues (preferably fees) voluntarily contributed as per the terms of the agreement to create the authority.
Part 3: Counties should be given a free hand as to how to divide the cost of road maintenance; leaving the gas tax as their only tool won’t cut it.
Part 4: All subdivision roads would be removed from the government maintenance grid and would be privately maintained by law. No government can maintain subdivision roads – period.
This would save the state government more than $1.3 billion for this biennium alone, and get the state government out of areas it in which it should not have a role. Yes, you read that right, the government’s role in transportation is too heavy and must be scaled back.
For a lot of people, even right-wingers, that statement is a little odd. After all, it was Adam Smith himself, the icon of market economics, who said the government should be building and maintaining roads. Moreover, here in Virginia, it was one of the icons of limited government and “pay as you go” (Harry F. Byrd), who instituted the statewide transportation system.
My response to this is simple – this isn’t 1776, or even the 1930s, anymore. At the time Smith was writing The Wealth of Nations, Great Britain was still a largely agricultural society less than a decade into the Industrial Revolution. The only way to integrate markets and people spread across the isle was to build roads. In North America, we dealt with the same thing, which is why the right on both sides of the 49th parallel championed major public transportation projects.
Meanwhile, in the 1930s, when Byrd proposed his statewide system, Virginia was a largely agricultural state reeling from the early effects of the Great Depression, with its few cities barely connected to each other. Moreover, while Byrd today is known as the archetype organization conservative, in his time he was radical reformer. His road-building plan all but revolutionized the Commonwealth.
We are now nearly two-and-a-half centuries removed from Smith’s time, and more than seven decades from Byrd’s innovation, long enough to see what those two could not: some roads have a narrower set of beneficiaries than others.
This is why decentralization must occur. The state highway system should, of course, be state-funded. Those roads are clearly designed to bring together far-flung communities in the Commonwealth. Secondary roads are something else again. They clearly benefit the residents of the respective counties far more than anyone else. These should be the counties’ responsibility, not Richmond’s. Hence Part 1.
As for Part 2, without Part 1 becoming policy, regional authorities could easily become pawns of Richmond (see the current “debate” on transportation). These authorities will never be what they should be – i.e., voluntary associations created by like-minded counties looking for efficiencies and/or joint transportation opportunities – if Richmond is either creating them or funding them. The funds should be handed to the authority only by the proper elected Boards or City Councils in the localities that join to ensure accountability to the voters.
Part 3 may seem odd to the many folks who have become convinced that the gas-tax is the best way of distributing transportation cost. I disagree with that notion. In fact, I believe the entire idea of charging by “use” is a mistake. Rather, the cost should be determined by how much a road network is valued.
I’ll explain with an example. County roads are fewer and more “far between” in western Virginia than in Northern Virginia. As such, folks out west need to use more primary roads – and take far less direct routes in many cases – than Northern Virginians. Yet, by being forced to take more roundabout methods, the rural driver pays more gas taxes – and thus a higher “fee” – for a road network that is clearly less valuable to him or her. Meanwhile, those whose have road system so developed that they can avoid cars altogether (biking or walking) end up paying zero in fees for a clearly more valuable network.
Many, upon hearing this, would note that reducing driving is part of the gas tax’s purpose in the first place. To which I respond, you can’t raise revenue and discourage consumption at the same time. The former implies inelastic demand (changes little in reaction to the price), while the later implies elastic demand (changes dramatically in reaction to the price). Demand can be elastic or inelastic, but not both. Furthermore, the data clearly shows that gasoline demand is inelastic, therefore discouragement of consumption simply does not happen.
Shifting road charges from a use system to a value system is sure to be controversial (in fact, I’m guessing all four parts of my policy are), but it is I feel the best way to ensure the folks who benefit from the roads (which is not the same as merely using them) pay the cost for it. In the case of secondary roads, it could be a number of options – a charge by square inch of asphalt on or adjacent to the property, a city block fee, a fee for all property owners who abut a particular road, etc – but I’m not sold on the gas tax being one of them, and I certainly do not think it should be the only one at the localities’ disposal. Thus Part 3.
Actually, my comments on road value versus road use also work for Part 4. As of right now, Jerry Fuhrman, Lynn Mithcell, Chris Green, Shaun Kenney, Jim Riley, Jason Kenney, and every other blogger that comes to mind pays for the maintenance of my subdivision roads.
Those roads are located completely within my subdivision boundaries. The above named bloggers get no use from them. Meanwhile, I get far more value from these roads than the mileage I drive on them (easier mail delivery, easier pizza delivery, a safer place for the neighborhood kids to play touch football – try that on an unpaved road – etc.).
These roads aren’t part of the state’s vital transportation network, nor are they part of the counties’ network. They are, in fact, Common Area under asphalt, and they should be treated that way.
In short, the government does too much transportation maintenance, and even some maintenance or construction that should be done is being done at the wrong level of government. Unless these problems are fixed, we will face one transportation “crisis” after another with no end in sight.