Grove City College economist Tracy Miller explains why Pennsylvania drivers are resistant to a higher gasoline tax. In contrast to prior periods when the tax was viewed as a user fee, today’s highway funds (federal and state) are diverted to mass transit, as well as recreational and pork projects, rather than fixing bridges:
Recent strong opposition to increases in fuel taxes does not mean that Americans are less willing than before to pay taxes in order to have better roads. What it does reflect is voters’ opposition to money paid in fuel taxes being used for purposes other than highway spending. In recent years, almost 20 percent of money paid into the Federal Highway Trust Fund (FHTF) has been spent on mass transit. In addition, FHTF money is being spent on recreational trails, historic preservation, and scenic easements. Besides the FHTF money allocated for non-highway purposes, a growing share is used for earmarks that reflect the political priorities of members of Congress rather than the priorities of highway users who pay gasoline taxes.
Why should federal fuel taxes, which are paid by rural and urban drivers alike, be used to pay for public transportation, which primarily benefits residents of large metropolitan areas? In Pennsylvania, 90 percent of transit-operating grants is paid to the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC). But only 50 percent of the state’s population lives in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas served by these transit agencies. In these two metropolitan areas, less than five percent of local trips are on public transportation while almost all the rest are by automobile.