Do We Need to Change the Equation of Who Pays for Transportation Infrastructure?

Something to consider as ballots arrive asking Tacoma voters to consider proposals to raise taxes on themselves to repair and replace our troubled roads, and challenges continue at the state and federal levels around funding needed improvements to transportation infrastructure: Is our current funding structure really the best way of doing things?

In an editorial in New Geography this month, UW Tacoma's Director of Urban Studies, Ali Modarres, asks whether the old (current) “pay as you go” policy of increasing fuel taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure is equitable - and whether it is sustainable.

Modarres points to the situation in cities like Seattle and their surrounding regions, where the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing in the city force lower wage workers to seek more affordable housing elsewhere. This makes for a higher cost of transportation - both in terms of time, and in fuel (and fuel taxes) - for those who can least afford it.

In this dynamic low-wage workers end up bearing a large portion of the costs of the roads, while companies benefitting from the flows of people facilitated by transportation infrastructure pay relatively little of the cost of maintaining it.

... a company deciding to locate in Seattle or San Francisco, or any location, does not have to bear the cost their decision imposes on urban transportation and the infrastructure needed to support their operation. Instead it’s their employees, particularly those with lower earning power, who do.

Modarres challenges the fairness of this situation, suggesting that there might be a better solution.

... did the locational choices of employers contribute to the growing commuting problems in the region? If commuters are subjected to “pay as you go” policies, shouldn’t employers who locate in expensive housing markets, irrespective of their employees’ income profile, be subjected to “pay as you locate” policies?

These seem like questions worth asking. Especially if they lead to a more equitable, more sustainable way of funding our transportation infrastructure. What do you think?

Read the full article on "Who Should Pay for the Transportation Infrastructure?" from New Geography.

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You know, Ali needs to quit his job… and run for Mayor.  I love hearing him speak.

October 21, 2015 at 7:29 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Modarres raises an issue urban progressives (at least that live in “alpha cities”) don’t like to think about - what are the social justice implications of driving the lion’s share of growth into trendy alpha cities?  The civic discussion in Seattle and San Francisco generally is a one about who can most vigorously pat themselves on the back (while attempting to assuage free-floating, mostly unconstructive guilt).  Figuring out how to actually solve rather than floridly ignore regional implications of hot urban centers should be job 1 for state legislatures, as it won’t be solved by the leaders of parochial alpha city governments.

October 23, 2015 at 9:06 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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That discussion can wait until after all existing transportation revenues are legally constrained and can only be spent by jurisdictions on existing pavement restoration, preservation and maintenance unless and until a jurisdiction has a pavement Overall Condition Index (OCI) of 70.  There is absolutely nothing in the public record to suggest that additional revenues would not be pissed away, in fact the exact opposite is what history suggests will be the case if miserable, pathetic, irresponsible politicians get their hands on additional revenues. 

Tacoma and Seattle are outstanding examples of jurisdictions that take in far above the average level of funding for “transportation,” and if anyone wants to suggest that these dollars have been spent responsibly they are off their rocker. 

What Tacoma and Seattle have is a spending problem, there is no level of funding that can or ever will be able to keep pace with the level of irresponsibility that the politicians and decision makers in such cities are capable of. 

Bellevue and Renton are just two examples of how transportation dollars can be responsibly programmed and budgeted.  Neither of these jurisdictions takes in, per capita or per lane mile, even close to the same revenues that Tacoma and Seattle have and will continue to take in, but their streets are well maintained and both jurisdictions are able to fund new capital projects out of existing revenue streams at the same time.

October 23, 2015 at 9:17 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Instead of requiring the companies locating in large cities to pay for transportation (encouraging them to generate sprawl in the suburbs, increasing trip distance and making the problem worse), they should instead be required to provide affordable housing nearby. An employee who lives 5 blocks away is an employee who isn’t clogging up the highways.

In short, it’s not a transportation problem, it’s a housing price problem.

November 13, 2015 at 6:39 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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