The Highway Trust Fund is crumbling; maybe it should

The federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides transportation funding to the states, is projected to run dry in August. But with a technology-driven revolution underway in the way Americans use surface transportation, applying yesterday’s solution and simply replenishing the fund won’t solve the problem.

According to the Obama administration, if the fund is exhausted, states will be forced to put off 112,000 highway construction and 5,600 transit projects, resulting in the loss of 700,000 jobs. When dealing with the government, there are always plenty of zeroes to go around.

The traditional source of revenue for the trust fund is the federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, which has not been increased in over two decades. Given that it’s an election year, an increase is not only dead but already decomposing.

One reason the federal fuel tax doesn’t generate enough revenue is more fuel-efficient cars. But that isn’t the whole story. Surface transportation is in the midst of a quiet but profound transformation because technology is fundamentally improving urban mobility.

Technology advances make it easier for people to navigate public bus and rail transportation. Personal ride-booking and car-sharing services are available in nearly every major city, resulting in an interactive transportation network that generates fewer vehicle miles traveled.

As is always the case, technology is outpacing traditional institutions’ ability to adapt. Customers and markets have embraced the digital revolution. The country is witnessing the emergence of an integrated surface transportation network where each transportation mode no longer operates as if it exists in a separate universe.

Technology is in place that allows cities to operate roadway, rail and water transportation modes that complement each other. This gestalt shift represents a fundamental challenge to the traditional approach of the road gang pouring more and more concrete. This is all happening in the name of market solutions, the kind that would make Adam Smith smile.

The proliferation of innovative mobility tools has major implications for traditional approaches to planning, funding, and delivering surface transportation. Recent lifestyle changes, especially among the millennia! generation, are transforming the surface transportation marketplace. It is hard to resist the temptation to conclude that it is time to deliver the eulogy for traditional surface transportation planning and funding.

History- specifically the Japanese Navy’s strategic failure at Pearl Harbor- can teach us something about not letting business as usual blind us when it comes to the need to overhaul surface transportation in the U.S. The Japanese Navy’s officially sanctioned model for everything it did was the British Royal Navy. Standard histories of the Royal Navy emphasize its victories in spectacular naval battles like Trafalgar during which Royal Navy warships attacked and destroyed opposing warships.

Thus, Japanese naval thinking focused on attacking the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s battleships while they were moored at Pearl Harbor. Lost in the shuffle was any serious consideration of trying to cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as a forward naval base. The Japanese were intellectual prisoners of a past that they believed would shape the future.

So it was that, in a brilliant display of tactical management, six aircraft carriers furtively approached the Hawaiian Islands just before dawn that fateful Sunday, launched their planes into the rising sun, caught the U.S. Pacific Fleet with its pants down and wrought havoc in spectacular fashion. On paper at least, this rivaled the triumph at Trafalgar, the Japanese Navy’s benchmark of success.

But as the sun set on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor’s all-important fuel storage and ship repair facilities remained untouched by Japanese bombs, allowing it to continue serving as a forward base for American naval power in the Pacific. In reality, Japan’s tradition-bound naval leaders chose the wrong targets at Pearl Harbor.

Tradition is often the worst guide when it comes to doing anything really important. Things that have survived long enough to be venerated are often obsolete. American surface transportation is beset by a host of traditions that have helped produce the problems we face today. We must free ourselves of them if we’re to come up with a truly effective vision for what transportation should look like in the future.

originally published: July 12, 2014

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