I am usually a poor political prognosticator. But on Monday, I wrote, “I foresee a movement to raise taxes to replace thousands of bridges.”
Today, the Associated Press reports that Alaska Representative Don Young wants to raise gas taxes to replace the hundreds of bridges that are in poor condition. “May the sky not fall on me,” he says.
Artist’s rendering of the Gravina Bridge, aka the Bridge to Nowhere, which is to connect Gravina Island (population 50 plus an airport) with Ketchican, Alaska. The island is now well served by frequent ferry service.
Don Young is better known as Mr. Earmark, the staunch advocate of the Bridge to Nowhere, not to mention a second bridge to be called Don Young’s Way that may cost $1.5 billion. Is there anyone, except for Young’s colleague in the senate, Ted Stevens, who could be a worse spokesperson for such a tax increase?
Congress passes a new surface transportation bill, which decides how your federal gas taxes will be spent, about every six years. Up until 1981, these bills had no earmarks. The 1981 bill had less than 10. In 1987, there were so many earmarks — 121 — that President Reagan vetoed the bill (Congress overrode it).
Last year, at Rep. Young’s instigation, the transportation bill had more than 6,000 earmarks. Each earmark takes money away from something that really needs to be done and spends it on something that gets a senator’s or representative’s name in the papers. All but a handful of the members of Congress — notably Ron Paul, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, Arizona Representative Jeff Flake, and a few other members of the Arizona delegation — participated in the earmarks.
Those members who put earmarks in the bills came home and said, “It was terrible to see all that money being wasted by all those other members of Congress. But fortunately, I was able to get some money for important projects in my state and district.”
So it doesn’t exactly fill me full of confidence when Representative Earmark wants to raise gasoline taxes. The fact that, by past agreement, 20 percent of all gas tax increases will be dedicated to more transit pork thrills me even less.
Let’s forget about gas taxes. Build the new bridges we need and fund them out of tolls. Tolls work better than taxes because they tie the users to the producers. Tolls give users a signal about how much a facility costs. Tolls give producers a signal about how much a facility is needed. No one will ever build a toll bridge to nowhere, but if a bridge is really needed, tolls will pay for it.
Update: Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar (D) has proposed a 5-cent gas tax increase dedicated to rebuilding bridges. One Republican calls this “a knee jerk reaction to the critical problem facing our transportation and infrastructure systems” and an expert from the Brookings Institution notes that Bush remains “committed to vetoing any tax increase.”