We tend to have a few good laughs when Randal O'Toole fires up his Cato computer and weighs in on transportation issues. It's hard to take seriously a man who thinks that having the government tax people to build something which it then gives away for free is the libertarian ideal.
Do federal gas taxes really charge "users" of the highway? (Photo: CAP)
But occasionally O'Toole provides an opportunity to discuss some interesting aspects of the transportation planning process and learn from his errors. And so we turn to his latest policy paper
, which was released yesterday. Therein, he writes:
The Interstate Highway System accomplished all of this [construction of the system] without any subsidies. Federal highway user fees paid for 90 percent of the cost of the system, and state highway user fees covered virtually all of the remaining 10 percent.
This brings up an interesting question: What is a user fee? Common sense would suggest that a user fee is a fee paid by a user of something in order to use that something. A common example might be a train fare. When one wants to ride a train, one purchases a ticket. One doesn't purchase a ticket if one doesn't want to ride the train, and one doesn't ride the train without a ticket. A ticket is specifically meant to extract a fee from a potential user, that that user might then be allowed to use the train.
So do gas taxes count as highway user fees? Well, one might pay gas taxes even if one never uses highways. You pay the gas tax on gas used to drive down local roads or private driveways, or to power lawnmowers and tractors that never even see publicly-funded blacktop.
And one can use highways without ever paying gas taxes. Anyone able to obtain a vehicle powered by natural gas or electric batteries or canola oil can ride on the federal highway system for thousands of miles and never pay one cent to do so.
So gas taxes are not user fees. Indeed, the lack of actual user fees is one reason American highways suffer from severe congestion problems; when you give away something valuable for free -- like scarce highway space -- it ends up seriously over-consumed.
As a thought experiment, let's consider a world in which federal gas taxes functioned more like a user fee. That is, let's imagine that when drivers fill up, they pay a federal gas tax only on the gasoline consumed while driving on federal highways. That's still not really a user fee, but it's a little closer. Read more...