When I was nine I liked to poke a stick into ant nests I’d find in sidewalk cracks. Ants scattered in every conceivable direction. They ran in circles, they ran over and through each other. They screamed without logic. I was fascinated.
The state of professional transportation opinion in the US today is pretty much the same. The stick poked at the nest in this case was the report released by the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Finance Commission this February. The opening ant-scream was the spanking Obama’s Press Secretary Gibbs gave to Transportation Secretary Lahood. We professionals cringed in unison. Gibbs was in turn spanked next day by Congressman Oberstar, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. We cheered. Of course the press went in every ant-direction imaginable for that and for the release of the NSTIFC’s Paying Our Way report 5 days later. Joe Motorist will have gleaned no real insight, and after fears were supplanted by next days’ tedious economic headlines will have simply forgotten, secure in the fact that opinion was sufficiently variable that no leader could possibly find a coherent position.
It seemed to me that in the weeks following the release of the report, US transportation professionals were – among friends – largely in favor of the key message in the report: “The gas-tax is a clever and simple idea whose time has run out and paying-for-use is the tax-shift to fix it.” We mocked Gibbs, commiserated with LaHood, and delighted in Oberstar’s defense – which had just vindicated all of us. On the whole we nodded in unison at the work of Rob Atkinson’s Congressional commission. Of course we would not all recommend spending the revenue the same way, but we all seemed aligned with the principles: meter all road use and pay according to number of miles traveled weighted by when and where the driving happened and of course by type of vehicle used.
With that in mind, I attended the April 14-15 Symposium on Mileage-Based User Fees (updated web page here) hosted in Austin by the Texas Transportation Institute’s University Transportation Center for Mobility, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota. This would be about my 20th symposium dealing with Road Use Charging in five years.