Land of a thousand ordinances

Congress soon may break the longstanding deal with highway users that built the interstate highway system. Taxes on gasoline and diesel helped create a transportation network that allows for the safe and efficient movement of people and goods. In return for users’ commitment to fund the construction, the government agreed to keep interstates free of tolls. That was fair enough.

But this simple arrangement is breaking down. Some jurisdictions want to use toll receipts to build new interstate highway capacity, but others seek to free up existing funds for use elsewhere. Meanwhile, technology is making the process of collecting tolls far less painless for all involved. State and federal budgets are tightening. The demand for infrastructure is growing. And nobody wants to raise taxes. Politically, it’s much easier for Congress to allow states to collect tolls than to raise motor fuels taxes.

The U.S. House of Representatives in March soundly defeated a measure that would have curtailed the highway bill’s “congestion pricing pilot program” by having it apply only to new lanes, use of which would be optional. If Congress ever agrees to a highway bill that President Bush can sign, expect tolls. And once they start, they won’t stop.

Tax fairness is a vital issue, but there’s another important worry. Federal highway money is a big carrot, and the threatened loss of that money is a big stick. As the funding stream shifts from federal to local control, the Federal Highway Administration and, potentially, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration may have fewer tools to ensure states and localities are following national standards regarding access to the National Highway System or the safety oversight of motor carriers.

The courts remain a refuge for highway users, but they aren’t reliable. The transportation industry has had some success in court overturning, for example, discriminatory highway access rules and weight-mile taxes. But you only have to look back to April to see why the judiciary alone is inadequate. Citing worries over terrorism, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan refused to block the District of Columbia from prohibiting rail transport of certain hazardous materials within a 2.2-mile zone around the U.S. Capitol. The decision was stayed pending appeal. Also, the American Trucking Associations has asked FMCSA to rule whether federal hazardous materials transportation law preempts D.C.’s highway routing requirements.

Homeland security shouldn’t be carte blanche for government to do whatever it wants. Terrorism is scary business, but decisions like that of the District of Columbia have enormous implications for interstate commerce and can’t be left to local governments acting unilaterally. Even Judge Sullivan argued that a consistent and comprehensive federal policy was desirable, and it was principally the absence of such a policy that led him to his decision.

The need for stronger national policy extends to environmental issues. The once-thorny issue of boutique diesel formulations should be resolved once ultra-low-sulfur fuel is mandated nationwide. But other state and local laws continue to crop up, including ordinances against idling and use of engine brakes. The Supreme Court last year blocked a California agency from mandating the purchase of certain vehicles for fleet operations, but don’t expect that agency or other regulatory groups to stop trying. Unfortunately, these efforts come as the trucking industry is spending millions to buy new truck engines that are better for the environment but not for fleet owners.

State and local governments will continue seeking greater control over interstate commerce, and the federal government’s willingness and power to stop them is eroding. The solution may be to insist on a new deal like the one that built the interstate highway system. If we pay for new highways and new low-emissions equipment, we expect some service from the federal government.