February 2011

Why libertarians are wrong about federal transportation investment

by Cliff Henke, Contributing Editor

Newly installed House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) wants to report a new surface transportation authorization bill out of his committee this coming spring. The question is whether it will be a two-year law or a full six-year authorization, because neither the administration nor enough members of Congress have the stomach to propose a tax increase to fully fund a bill. So, any gap in a six-year measure would have to be funded by general revenues, which, in turn, likely means deficit spending or finding cuts elsewhere. Yet, there may be a more fundamental, troubling reason: Mica's own leadership may not believe that the federal government should play much of a role in transportation infrastructure other than maintaining existing highways.

The ideological opposition to federal transit spending, even when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the recent bipartisan commission on the deficit support gas tax increases to fund additional infrastructure investment, is deepening. It is often driven by those who fail to acknowledge the history of such spending. They deny even the nation's founders' beliefs about federal responsibility on this issue.

Assumptions ignore history

Many say, for example, that transit spending specifically — a few others even argue most forms of transportation investment — never was intended to be responsibilities of the federal government. They are wrong on a number of levels. Even from the time of Magna Carta, the national government, in those days, the crown, had an assumed right - some  even assert a responsibility — to enforce public rights of way, either through forcing adjacent land owners to maintain them themselves or by projects funded from the treasury. This traditional responsibility was later expanded as the British parliament assumed responsibilities for such infrastructure investments. Adam Smith, in his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, viewed infrastructure as a responsibility of government to ensure a well functioning marketplace.

This tradition was not even questioned in America's founding. Possibly because of his own background as a land surveyor, one of President George Washington's first acts in his first term was planning and designing the National Road, linking coastal ports with the expanding interior along the Ohio River valley.

President Abraham Lincoln, through federal land grants, helped to fund development of the transcontinental railroads. In the 20th Century, two major federal highway programs helped to create the extensive network of U.S. roads that are the envy of the world. President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal funded many public transportation investments. Indeed, many Republicans said they opposed the 2009 stimulus package, in part, because there was too little infrastructure spending in the bill.

Where are the grown-ups?

Where are those leaders now? Our infrastructure needs are no less acute. Virtually every other government in the world, including conservative ones, preserved infrastructure investment, despite austerity programs undertaken by many. The new British government is a noteworthy example.

There is plenty of room for disagreement over how this responsibility should be undertaken. To suggest, however, government, particularly the federal government, is not responsible for addressing challenges that have national, interstate and, now, even international importance, is either ignorant or disingenuous.

Cliff Henke, a contributing editor to METRO, is senior analyst at PB. His views herein are solely his own.

 


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