Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

A century ago, with the exception of railroads, transportation in the United States was by dirt road. Similar to growing demand for mobility in today’s third world economies, the push to get America out of the mud in the early twentieth century was led by bicycle enthusiasts. Automobile ownership was a novelty. But when rising personal wealth met declining automobile costs–thanks to Henry Fords assembly line for the Model T–more and more people began to enjoy automobile ownership. The trend is irreversible.

Visionaries foresaw superhighways. The first plan was finalized in the 1930s. Planning for highway construction was accelerated during World War II–partly to ensure that ex-soldiers would have jobs when the war ended. Planners also saw the mobility advantage that the Autobahns gave to the German army, as forces could be moved rapidly from one part of the country to the other.

Financing was a problem because automobile ownership was still relatively small, war debt was high, and highway use and requisite support systems were still in their infancy.

The U.S. Constitution was also a problem. Nowhere did the Constitution give Congress authority over transportation. Three of the greatest presidents — Madison, Monroe, and Jackson — had vetoed as unconstitutional efforts by Congress to intrude into transportation, such as by creating national roads.

In 1956, Congress found a way to circumvent the Constitution. Federal road-building would fly under the banner of the “National Defense Highway Act.” Congress did have authority over national defense, and highways did help national defense. All Interstate highways would be owned and operated by the states. The user-fee debate was decided in favor of the gasoline tax over tolls. A critical consideration was that tolls would discourage increased car use and greater car use was needed to aid financing. The “temporary” 4 cents per gallon Federal gasoline tax would cease when the 40,000 mile network was competed.

Every dollar spent on construction yielded five dollars in direct economic benefits. Travel time between cities such Pittsburgh and Philadelphia plunged. It became easier and cheaper to transport goods between producers and markets. One cause of the prosperity of the 1960s was the increased wealth and efficiency generated by the new interstate highway system–the Internet of its time.

The years went by. Construction was completed before 1985. The Federal gasoline tax grew to 18.4 cents. The Constitutional issue was forgotten. Use grew, further augmenting revenues. Special interests began tapping into the Highway Trust Fund. The gas tax has been perverted into a general funding source for airports, waterways, buses, Amtrak, the Coast Guard, light rail, and the national debt. Two-thirds of the states put more money into the Highway Fund than they get back. Money recovered is subject to innumerable conditions and delays.

Colorados transportation philosophy has been a victim of the schizophrenic attitude toward population growth. Over the long term, Colorado has experienced growth at about 2% per year. When growth is less, there is concern; when growth is more, exclusionists call for less. The anti-growth assumption is that if transportation were less efficient, fewer people would move here.

Special interests have succeeded at politicizing transportation. DRCOG (Denver Regional Council of Governments) recently updated its Metro Vision 2020, Regional Transportation Plan. Variety of travel opportunities is weighted more heavily than meeting the needs of taxpayers. Perhaps DRCOG, as a vestige of the outmoded Central Planning era, has outlived its usefulness.

Of the $16.34 billion available in the Denver Region to address transportation, nearly 60%, or $9.63 billion, are for government transit. This funding will increase light and commuter rail by 1400% and highway capacity by 24.5%–even though travel demand is projected to rise 48%. The 23.5% highway deficiency (48% minus 24.5%) is a measure of how much worse Colorado highways are going to get.  Government transit gets the lion’s share of funding, but  picks up only 4.04% of the additional demand. DRCOG predicts, accurately, that “severe congestion will increase significantly.”

If Colorado’s anti-transportation policy is not soon reversed, the consequences will be dire.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, http://i2i.org.

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Copyright 2000