Find a Way to Fund Passenger Rail!
Most Americans think that highway maintenance and construction is paid for by the people who use the roads and pay the gasoline tax which goes into the Highway Trust Fund. Boy! Are they wrong! The last time that was true—when money raised from the gas tax actually covered the cost of fixing and building roads—man had not yet set foot on the moon. In other words, almost 50 years ago.
Ever since then, an ever-increasing percent of that cost has come straight out of the treasury. In other words, most of the cost of highway construction and repair is paid for by a direct subsidy from the federal government.
The original mistake was made by Congress when they failed to make the tax a percentage of the price of gas at the pump instead of a fixed number of cents-per-gallon. The problem with that, of course, is that any member of Congress who votes to increase the gas tax to a reasonable number can look forward to being accused of “raising taxes” when the next election rolls around.
The Europeans have done it the right way, of course. The cost of gas at the pump is much higher than it is here and most of that is tax which goes to pay for infrastructure, including passenger rail and all the other forms of public transportation as well. The net result is less congestion, less pollution, and excellent public transportation.
The fact is, in Europe, you can get from almost anywhere to almost anywhere using public transportation. Trains run frequently, even to small towns. Last summer, I spent a week in a small French town, population about 3,500. Yet it had its own railway station with several trains every day.
Anyway, I guess there are two main points to make here. The first is we need to acknowledge that we’re all paying for our highways, whether we drive a lot or not at all. Second, if we, as a society, are going to subsidize one form of public transportation, then we should be subsidizing ALL forms of transportation.
More specifically, what we really need is a dedicated source of revenue which will subsidize passenger rail and make it possible for carriers—whether commuter lines or urban mass transit or Amtrak—to replace old equipment, add new equipment, increase frequencies and add new routes. Because that will add more passengers and generate more revenue. And serve more tax-paying passengers. What’s not to like about that?