Funding Sprawl

The Atlantic has an article by Jordan Weissmann entitled, “Why Your Prius Will Bankrupt Our Highways.” It paints an ominous picture of the relationship between gasoline taxes and federal highway funding. I think it’s interesting that proposed public spending on rail infrastructure is reliably controversial in the United States, but not the subsidizing of motor travel through public spending on roads, highways and related infrastructure costs. It would be fair to say that the business model for private railroads would be a lot rosier if the government built and maintained all of the tracks, switches, and stations across the country, without controversy, and the private sector had only to supply the actual engines and rail cars.

Weissmann’s article also, indirectly, makes the case for land use policies that discourage sprawl and facilitate more compact development patterns. I’ve been reading about this topic lately in connection with some work that I’m doing for a research center. Studies have found that, in addition to the staggering highway costs that are generated by car-based land-use patterns, added costs for the development and maintenance of water and sewer infrastructure, private sector utilities, and lost productivity due to traffic congestion also grow in direct correlation with low-density, sprawl-type development.  These externalities ultimately redound to taxpayers, utility customers, and other consumers, where they are shared by town-dwellers and sprawl-dwellers alike. In traditional towns and cities, these costs were borne more directly by those who would benefit– a practice which strongly encouraged efficient land use.