Comments on Long-Range Funding Solutions Symposium

On June 24th, MnDOT held a “Long-Range Funding Solutions Symposium” to examine issues associated with the long-term funding of transportation. I was asked to be a discussant. These are my comments in extended form.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss the topics raised today.
First, MnDOT has identified $50 Billion of unfunded “needs” for additional resources of which 86% are for the purpose of “mobility” over the next 20 years. I am not clear as to how these needs were identified, but several points should be kept in mind. First, this is a slow-growing region (and outside the Metro a declining state). It has 5 million people now, and at best is growing at about 1 percent per year. Second, per-capita Vehicle Miles Traveled has been flat for almost a decade, and overall VMT growth has been flat for about half a decade. There are several reasons for this, most recently recession and high gas prices, but I think the most important is market saturation. if speeds are not growing (because we have maxed out the network given current technologies and face diminishing marginal returns to new road construction), and people have finite time, they choose not to devote additional time to travel (and thus distance). Fortunately, since the I-35W Bridge Collapse, MnDOT has adopted a “fix it first” approach, so that system preservation, operations, and maintenance get the largest share of the existing budget, and comprise the first funded element of needs.
We cannot know what “needs” for mobility are if we have an unpriced (or underpriced) transportation system. People will always over-consume if they are subsidized, and people do not presently pay for the congestion externality they impose on others. Once we have something like marginal cost pricing (or a second-best version thereof), we can determine which links generate more revenue than they cost to operate and maintain, and that will signal where capacity should be added, where the benefits of added capacity outweigh the costs.
Another way of thinking about what $50 billion means is that Minnesota is a state of 5 million people, so that amounts to $10000 of new construction for each resident of Minnesota (because this is above and beyond the funded part which takes care of preservation (we hope)). Over 20 years, $10000 per capita is $500 per year, or about $0.50 per trip. But that $0.50 per trip is not to pay for existing infrastructure, that is to pay for new infrastructure those travelers may or may not use; or if we were to charge users, we would be looking at 10 to 100 times as much per trip, as the new capacity built for $50 billion will serve only 10% to 1% of trips, most trips will continue to use pre-existing infrastructure.
We could also talk about mobility vs. accessibility, and why is it important to enhance mobility, but that is another long discussion, and the reader is referred to the Access to Destinations study for details.
Attention is a scarce resource, spending time on non-starters like $50 Billion in “mobility” needs detracts from real problems with existing infrastructure.
In short, the $50 Billion suggested comprises Wants not Needs. (as Jim Erkel calls it the Rolling Stones theory of transportation finance … You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need).
Second, we need to re-examine the institutional structure of transportation funding and administration. We should consider a public utility model where a transportation authority or utility with independence from the legislation and executive branch of government determines how much is required to maintain (and as necessary expand) the transportation system, with oversight from a Public Utility Commission or similar. This would resemble how Natural Gas and Electricity and Water and Sewer in many places are currently delivered. Like those, transportation is a utility that has costs that users should bear as directly as possible. The user fee notion would be embedded into the governance structure of such a transportation authority. The British might call this a Transportation Trust. We could consider how this is organized at different levels of government (keeping state and local separate or bringing them together?)
Third, Value Capture has not been fairly characterized in the presentation made today. If we do not have road user fees, transportation creates value for land-owners. (If we do have marginal cost user fees, a closed system, and invest the revenue in transportation, making some simplifying assumptions, we would not have additional land value associated with investment (in the absence of agglomeration economies)). Since we do not have road user fees, value is created. Several of the methods proposed by the value capture study hold promise for financing transportation systematically, not just at the project level.
Fourth, in the short-term (next decade or so), gas taxes, indexed and adjusted appropriately should be used to fund transportation, as they are administratively much more efficient than road user charges. They have several advantages: foremost they are cheaper to collect than most of the proposed VMT charges. An annual odometer reading is certainly a similar alternative, but that does not have the environmental benefits of discouraging motor fuel consumption and encouraging better mileage. Ultimately as the fleet becomes electrified, the gas tax becomes a better and better incentive to move in that direction. If today 100% of the drivers use gas and pay for 100% of roads (which I recognize is not strictly the case at the state level, but is simply illustrative), and next year only 50% of drivers used gasoline, the remaining 50% would pay for all of the roads by doubling the gas tax. That provides a somewhat stronger incentive to switch to electricity. If the following year another 25% switch to electricity, than 75% use electric and 25% use fuel and pay the motor fuel tax, which is now 4 times as high. Eventually this becomes unsustainable as the last drive of a gasoline-powered car could not possibly afford 100% of the road system’s costs, but in the meantime the incentive works in the right direction for the environment, and since government is always a lagging indicator, retaining the gas tax for as long as tenable should be considered the near term solution, with continuing research into road pricing, additional demonstration, and deployment of select strategies like High Occupancy Toll lanes. See Beyond the gas tax for a further discussion.
At any rate, as I have learned today, in Minnesota transit funding depends on the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax, so I will do my part to help fund transit and buy a car.