NPR Story
2:46 pm
Mon March 3, 2014

How To Pay For The Nation's Crumbling Infrastructure

President Obama will reveal his budget proposal to Congress tomorrow. He recently proposed a $302 billion dollar transportation bill to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

The funds would help replenish the nation’s Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run out before the end of the year.

Kara Kockelman, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to talk about the federal gas tax and other measures that can be taken to fund the country’s disintegrating infrastructure.


  • Kara Kockelman, transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
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And the long, cold winter is wreaking havoc on roadways across much of the nation. But that isn't the main reason why President Obama visited St. Paul, Minnesota, last week to unveil his $302 billion transportation bill.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Part of the reason I'm focused on this is Congress has an important deadline coming up. If Congress doesn't finish a transportation bill by the end of the summer, we could see construction projects stop in their tracks, machines sitting idle, workers off the job.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, the president is referring there to the September 30th deadline to renew federal funding for transportation programs, much of which comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which helps pay for road and bridge projects but is expected to be insolvent before the end of the year. Revenues for the Highway Trust Fund come from the federal gas tax, but that's not the only way to pay for the nation's transportation infrastructure.

Let's explore some other ideas with Kara Kockelman, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. And, Professor Kockelman, let's start with the Highway Trust Fund. It was created in 1956. Explain how it could fall into insolvency now.

KARA KOCKELMAN: Well, the gas tax is per gallon of fuel that we consume. And for the last 20 years, it's been flat at the federal level at 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline. It's slightly higher for diesel, and then each state adds it own portion, and those can vary dramatically. From Alaska, 10 cents per gallon, to California at another 50 cents per gallon. And so if the federal portion doesn't rise, then the Highway Trust Fund can go insolvent. And we're driving more efficient vehicles as our corporate average fuel economy goes up. And with the recession, it was a drop in actual travel that we were seeing. So it's definitely possible.

CHAKRABARTI: And there also seems to be, overall, just a huge political lack of incentive to do anything to raise the gas tax. It seems very hard to do so. It hasn't been raised since 1993.

KOCKELMAN: Right. And yet it's such a small portion of what we pay to own and operate a car. It's about two and a half cents per mile. Of course, electric vehicle operators that are electrifying all their miles, they're going to pay zero per mile. And big SUVs might pay 45 cents a mile if they're very fuel inefficient. And, of course, heavy duty trucks pay a lot, and those vehicles do a lot of damage to the pavement, so they're the ones that we design the pavements for.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. Let's look beyond that. Let's look at what else is possible if the gas taxes can't be raised in Washington. Some states are running, for example, pilot pay-per-mile programs where you would pay for every mile that you drive on state and federal roads. Tell me a little bit more about that.

KOCKELMAN: It's just a user fee much like the gas tax, which was checking gallons of gasoline and was nicely proportional in many ways to kind of impact that vehicles were having. And so a mileage based fee does very much the same thing except it loses that incentive to buy a smaller vehicle. So you might opt for the heavier pick-up truck or an SUV, let's say, rather than the Prius. And that way, we'll catch all those miles by those very fuel-efficient vehicles.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. And I see at least one of these pilot programs is currently underway in the state of Oregon. Other ideas? And it's so funny, because I'm just thinking of all the people I know who drive, whose eyes just roll when they think, oh, my gosh, tolls. What if we put more tolls on the road?

KOCKELMAN: Right. Well, tolls are just like going to the grocery store and buying an orange, you know? It's a user fee. It's long been inefficient because of the heavy cost of having toll collectors out there on the roadways, slowing down vehicles, unless we want to shift to global positioning system-based reads of where we are and tracking some of that mileage. We can anonymize it before we report what we owe. But it's another way to get a sense of where people are if they're on a very congested road at a congested time of day. We can charge them a little bit more, to provide an incentive to take a different route, or travel at a different time of day, or pick a closer destination or walk, carpool.

There's lots of ways to reduce those tolls. So there's a nice incentive built in to do a more sustainable form of transportation when you bring those tolls very obviously on to the road system rather than at a gas station every month when you fill up.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. Now, there's an entirely different funding model here that you've done quite a bit of research on, and that is congestion pricing. I know that there are various cities around the world which have introduced this. I was just in London not that long ago, hearing people still grumble about congestion pricing there. But tell us a little bit about what it is.

KARA KOCKELMAN, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN: Yeah. Well, London's area toll is really like a cordon, and every time you pass it or - once a day, you pay a very stiff fee. And then New York was flirting with this idea on the order of $20 a crossing. And then once you're inside, you can travel as much as you want. So it doesn't disincentivize a lot of travel once you're inside. It's sort of an inefficient way to do it, and the reason London pursued it is they already had a lot of closed-circuit TVs because of terrorism.

CHAKRABARTI: But just to explain a little bit for people who don't exactly know what we're talking about, you know, in London, if you want to drive into the central part of London and you're coming from the outside, once you sort of essentially crossed this invisible border into what's considered Central London, you have to pay, you know, a one-time fee for that day. And that's the congestion pricing, right?

AUSTIN: Yeah. They call it congestion pricing, but as I said, it really doesn't do too much for congestion because once you're inside, once you've passed that invisible line, you can do whatever you want with your car. So paying by the mile or along each link in the system that you're using by time of day rather than just a flat fee would be much more efficient.

CHAKRABARTI: So tell me a little bit more about that. I mean, how can we create more dynamic congestion pricing systems?

AUSTIN: Well, Singapore is a great place to look. They've had electronic road pricing for decades, and it's very extensive. And now they're toying with the idea of global positioning systems as well so that they can do it without these overhead gantries, which are quite visible. And that's the way we've been tolling here in Texas and on many of the facilities in the Northeast. And you go under a gantry, and it reads a transponder rather than using global positioning system.

CHAKRABARTI: How important do you think it is that some of these other ideas actually are put to use in the United States?

AUSTIN: Well, I think we do need to start the user fee at the location of travel because congestion is such a big issue, and it's very location-specific. It's very time-of-day specific. As you can imagine, bridges are traditional bottlenecks, but so are many other ramps and facilities in our metropolitan areas where so much of the economy resides. And we need to give them the proper signals like we do with almost everything else in our economy.

And people have gotten too used to having this sort of simple pay at the gas pump and really just a drop in the bucket. People don't pay attention to it. I don't - if we bring it up another 20 cents a gallon at the federal level, it's really not going to be noticed. There's not going to be a big impact on so many sectors.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Kara Kockelman is a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Kockelman, thank you so much for joining us.

AUSTIN: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, do any of these alternative ways to pay for transportation infrastructure sound appealing to you? Let us know at This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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