Will the electric car kill the Interstate Highway System?

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A stretch of the Interstate Highway System. The highway sign gives drivers the distance in miles to "here, there" and "everywhere," a sign of just how much ground the network covers.

America's Interstate Highway System is the largest network of its type worldwide. Will the Highway Trust Fund continue to be able to fund its expansion and maintenance? (Photo: Wikipedia)

As America shifts increasingly toward electric vehicles and efficiency standards that require that all vehicles to achieve 35 mpg or better, there may be a hidden peril lurking for the Interstate Highway System. As Keith Crain points out in a recent op-ed piece for Automotive News, the funding mechanism for building and maintaining the IHS – the Highway Trust Fund – depends heavily upon gasoline tax. As drivers consume more gasoline, more tax dollars are funneled into the Highway Trust Fund. The new breed of efficient internal combustion and electronic vehicles will require less (and eventually no) gasoline for operation. Thus, Crain calls for Congress to find alternative means of maintaining the Highway Trust Fund.

The Interstate Highway System’s short-term stimulus

During President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 (which established the Interstate Highway System) was considered a landmark public works law. The network of highways remains the largest system of its kind in the world, and the ways in which it has furthered commerce, travel and defense in America cannot be discounted. But lawmakers at that time were unable to predict just how much money would be required to maintain the IHS over time. Through various means, Congress has found ways to keep the Highway Trust Fund operational after its key provisions to back up the IHS had initially expired. Yet these efforts have only kept things going in the short term. President Obama’s green initiatives may look good on paper, particularly where expansions of green public transportation are concerned, but transitioning the American public to using public transport instead of private vehicles for daily tasks may be a difficult goal.

The Highway Trust Fund debate is complicated

C-Span recently posted a three-plus hour debate on funding the highway system. Part of the problem, according to Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain, is that Congress too often “raids the cookie jar,” taking money out of the Highway Trust Fund in order to finance unrelated pet projects. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has proposed a tax on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to help make up for gasoline tax shortages. According to the Washington Post, this idea is quite unpopular because many fear that the government will use mileage counters to monitor drivers.

Where will the money come from, then?

An answer acceptable to all has not been found to date. Crain advises that Congress seriously consider solutions right now, rather than waiting until the last moment and deciding hastily. A 2009 study published by Tobbits.com indicates that the number of hybrid vehicles on America’s roads grew by nearly 1.6 million. Assuming this trend continues, the problems the Interstate Highway System and Highway Trust Fund face are only going to increase.


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