Our transportation infrastructure is falling apart, and has not kept pace with development. Most of this is the fault of the states, which have primary responsibility over transportation matters.
Much of the federal government’s involvement in transportation as it relates to state and local projects will be returned to the states under the federalist rebalance plan, and so any problems you have with your state’s transportation infrastructure should be referred to your governor and state legislators. It is their job to maintain the transportation infrastructures within your state. Stop looking to Washington to solve your local problems.
There are, however, some specific areas of federal responsibility…and there are even some parts of the transportation infrastructure that need to be more federalized than they are today. The U.S. Constitution gives authority to the federal government to handle matters of interstate and international commerce, and it’s obvious that our highway, rail, and air networks are all key parts of commerce across state lines.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways — i.e., the Interstate Highway System — is the primary long distance highway network in the United States. Its purpose is to allow for free, high-speed movement of people and goods across the entire nation.
The system is pretty great…generally. But it isn’t perfect. First, although the system is primarily funded by the federal government (through the federal gas tax), it is built and maintained by the states. This means that its quality is relatively uneven from state to state; some have largely kept pace with development and others have not. I propose that the core of the Interstate Highway System — those highways that actually serve an interstate commerce or defense purpose — be nationalized.
Most of the three-digit highways, which serve as local connectors, would be turned over entirely to the states (for both funding and maintenance). Signage would be revised to clearly indicate which highways are core, federal parts of the system, and which are state-level connectors (which would still be required to adhere to Interstate Highway standards). Primary routes that do not actually serve an interstate commerce purpose would also be turned over to the states. These would either be renumbered and re-signed as state maintained Interstate Highways, or would be relabeled as U.S. or state highways outside of the Interstate Highway System.
The remaining core of the system — the parts of the Interstate Highway System that actually serve an interstate commerce purpose — would become completely the responsibility of the federal government, although in cooperation with the states with regard to routing, integration with U.S. and state highways, and so forth.
Following the switch to a national sales tax, the current federal gas tax would be eliminated and the normal sales tax would be applied to fuel just like everything else. This has the advantage of being a percentage of sales price, rather than the fixed cents-per-gallon tax that we have today (which has become a smaller percentage of the sales price as gas prices have gone up). The sales taxes from gas sales, public electric car chargers, and car parts and service would all be earmarked for a highway fund that could only be expended on Interstate highway construction and maintenance.
Tolling would be eliminated across the entire Interstate Highway System. Federally owned roads should not have any use fees, since, if they are a public good, they should be funded through taxes and freely available for all to use. Public services should not be a profit-making enterprise.
Additionally, predatory speed limits and enforcement would be eliminated, as would flow-inhibiting “high occupancy vehicle” lanes and restrictions. All Interstate Highways would have their speed limits set at the design speed of the road — typically 75 miles per hour or higher — unless a lower limit is justified by determining the 85th-percentile speed in an unbiased speed study. And all Interstate Highways should be made equally available to all drivers without regard for the amount of passengers or cargo. The purpose of the Interstate Highway System is to facilitate the free movement of people and goods at the highest safe speed possible.
Construction and improvements in the system would be prioritized based on the impact to traffic flow. Areas that get bogged down with backups and slowdowns would be moved to the top of the list, and would either get widened or bypassed as appropriate for the circumstances. We need to keep people moving.
The parts of the system under federal control should be designed primarily for long-distance travel, not local commuting. State and local roads should serve as the primary local commuting routes. Obviously you can’t completely separate the two, and that’s fine, but the two road networks should complement one another by being focused on the two different needs. We muddle them too much.
Amtrak and Rail
The federal government should have no role in funding or maintaining state and local rail systems. Those would all be divested, along with state and local road responsibilities, as part of the federalist rebalance plan. The only local rail system that has valid federal involvement is the system in Washington, D.C. — MetroRail — and this only because it serves the federal district. Although even there it would be better funded by local taxes, not federal taxes.
The national rail system — Amtrak, formally the National Railroad Passenger Corporation — is perhaps a valid federal matter, although its current incarnation violates a basic principle about public goods. If something is a public good, and we decide that a government should operate it, then it should be funded only by taxes and should be freely available for public use. If something is not a public good, then it should be privately owned and may be operated on a for-profit fee basis.
In other words, if we’re going to have a government owned national rail network, it should be funded by taxes and should be free to use. If we don’t like that idea, then we don’t really think it’s a public good and the government should get out of it entirely, except perhaps to impose some limited, reasonable regulations.
In the case of Amtrak, I am not convinced that it serves an important public need…especially since we have a fairly robust system of interstate highways and relatively cheap commercial air travel network. So it is clear that a full nationalization and an elimination of fares would be an unnecessary waste of tax dollars.
Instead, the system should be fully privatized. The federal government should fully divest the National Railroad Passenger Corporation and allow it to run itself however it wants…and if it is incapable of surviving, let it go bankrupt and let it either die or get picked up by other companies who can figure out how to make it (or at least parts of it) profitable.
The federal regulation of air travel is generally acceptable, since most air travel is interstate or international commerce. And the federal government has done a pretty good job of it overall. I have no major reform proposals with regard to air travel, but I will continue to pursue a policy of enacting only the least necessary regulations to ensure safety.
As is the case with highway and rail travel, the federal government should stop involving itself in local affairs — i.e., local airport construction and so-forth. These authorities and monies would be returned to the states.
Likewise, the federal government should end its direct involvement with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) that owns and operates Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport in the D.C. metro area. The federal land under the airports should be turned over directly to the MWAA, and the federal government should be removed from the authority’s governing board. That would leave it under the authority of the governments of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.