Increasing the federal gas tax to shore up the nation's bridges will not make American drivers safer. But better planning and prioritization of existing transportation funds could. The Transportation Dept. spends about $60 billion per year, and the federal Highway Trust Fund takes in about $40 billion from current gas taxes. There is plenty of money in this $100 billion pot to fund bridge maintenance.
The current national debate proves one thing: Policymakers know how to spend our money, but they have no idea how to invest it.
Part of the Highway Trust Fund is dedicated to funding mass transit despite that transit has proven anything but a success in terms of cost-effectiveness or its ability to get cars off the road. We spend billions, for example, on light-rail projects that very few people use. Even when the highway funds are actually spent on roads, Congress finds a way to earmark money for useless projects like the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. Not surprisingly, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is one of those calling for the tax increase.
State policymakers also bear responsibility. After all, every state has its own fuel tax, supposedly dedicated to road construction and maintenance.
Until policymakers prove themselves more responsible with the money we already make available to them, tax increases will not improve driver safety. The endless array of pork-barrel projects funded by todays gas tax revenues makes it obvious that money is not the problem; priority-setting is. If they act with more prudence, state and federal governments can keep bridges standing without a tax increase.
The Minnesota bridge collapse is a tragedy. But it should not be used as an excuse by spendthrift policymakers to ask for more money. Hand more revenue over and hope they get it right this time? No thank you.