Economist Brings Scholarly Perspective to National Transportation Policy

Article excerpt

It doesn't take an economist to know we're getting whacked at the pump.

When it comes to the billions in federal gasoline and diesel fuel tax revenues, one associate professor of policy analysis and management knows precisely where they are going--down to the last tenth of a cent--and Rick Geddes has a better idea. Four ideas, actually:

First, more of the fuel-tax revenues in the Highway Trust Fund should go back, no strings attached, to the states where the fuel was sold; individual states know more than Washington does about local needs for transportation infrastructure repairs, improvements, and innovations, believes Geddes, an expert on legal and economic aspects of government regulation of industry.

Second, transportation infrastructure maintenance and improvements should be paid for, to a much greater degree, by those who actually use the infrastructures; new technologies that would allow "value pricing" on busy highways, for example.

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Third, the use of private capital to fund public transportation infrastructure should not be restricted by the federal government, said the Cornell economist,

Finally: no, the federal fuel tax should not be raised by 200 percent, as some members of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission believe.

Even more money in the Highway Trust Fund would be an irresistible temptation for lawmakers with earmark projects like Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" and Florida's "Coconut Road" interchange, Geddes maintains.

Those views place the Cornell professor in a minority of three, among the 12-member commission that studied policy-and-revenue issues in advance of the 2009 reauthorization of the Federal highway and transit programs. Geddes questions whether allocation of federal fuel tax revenues under the 2005 reauthorization, known as SAFETEA-LU, has been either flexible or equitable.

But he's sure of two things: His 22-month experience, as the lone academic appointee to a commission filled with transportation industry representatives and administrators, was an eye-opening education for a Ph. D. economist. And the experience continues to inform his teaching, here at Cornell.

* Final report: transportationfortomorrow.org/final_report

* Minority report: transportationfortomorrow.org/final_report/pdf/volume_1_minority_views.pdf

When the President Calls

Duty on the commission wasn't Geddes's first national service. From 2004 to 2005, he had taken leave from the faculty he joined in 2002 to become a senior economist on the Council of Economic Advisers, in the Executive Office of the President, where his portfolio included transportation, regulation, and finance.

He returned to teaching at Cornell, and took on added responsibilities as director of undergraduate studies in the department when President Bush called again, making Geddes one of his appointees to the transportation policy-and-revenue commission. The appointment started a 22-month odyssey: numerous trips to Washington, D.C., of course, plus a 10-city round of public hearings to gather information on all sectors of surface transportation in the United States.

The public-hearing trips also gave commissioners a chance to study transportation experiments, such as a toll road in Minneapolis that constantly monitors traffic volume and adjusts tolls to discourage travel during peak times and give toll-payers a break when traffic is light. Seeing the Minneapolis experiment in action convinced Geddes that the so-called value pricing works: travelers willingly pay more for the convenience of using special infrastructure where traffic flows freely. (However, in Minneapolis a parallel conveyance is available to those who don't mind slogging it out with the crowd.) And the success of the congestion-pricing experiment cemented Geddes's conviction: that travelers who actually use particular pieces of infrastructure--a new highway in Los Angeles, for example--should foot the bill. …