GOP House Works to Undo Reagan Legacy on Transportation

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President Ronald Reagan on a whistle stop train tour, 1984

There was another moment like ours, not so long ago. The economy was in recession, unemployment was high, our transportation infrastructure was in sorry shape, deficit reduction was widely considered a national priority, and the President and Congress were struggling with how to steer the nation out of the swamp it was in.

At this other moment, in 1982, President Ronald Reagan was at the helm. And as the FHWA historian Richard Weingroff writes in his riveting and comprehensive history of the episode, Reagan worked to overcome a Republican filibuster to raise the gas tax by 125%, from four to nine cents a gallon, securing capital funding for both roads and transit. Then, as now, the gas tax hadn’t been increased in twenty years, not even to keep pace with inflation.

Reagan also agreed to devote a penny—20% of the increase—to capital improvements to transit. It was this bill, The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, that created the dedicated Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund—a marriage that’s been a going policy for almost 30 years. At this point, the Highway Trust Fund has included dedicated capital funding for transit longer than it existed without one.

Of course, many contemporary Republican members of Congress identify Reagan as their ideological progenitor. But their current proposals, at least in the House, would reverse the carefully considered and hard-fought precedent their hero set.

In his first State of the Union address, that January, Reagan had initially endorsed a “New Federalist” approach to transportation that would have devolved the federal program and left the work of road-building to the states, with encouragement to privatize all but the most essential work, while relaxing environmental protections in the name of cutting red tape. He also swore against raising taxes.

But a year later, the day before he signed the STAA, Reagan explained why he’d made an exception for the gas tax. “It was a year ago that Secretary Drew Lewis presented the plan and the necessity for rebuilding our roads and our highways and our bridges, because we’re faced with the possibility of tragedy in some instances,” Reagan said. “And the proposal was, as we called it, a ‘user fee’ to differentiate this as not a tax for general revenues. This is a tax to do this particular task.”

Even in a recession, raising the gas tax—and using a portion for transit—wasn’t considered a radical agenda in 1982. AASHTO (which had only recently updated its name to add a ‘T’ for Transportation after the ‘H’ for Highways) strongly supported the tax increase and the creation of the transit account. Another advocate for a dedicated transit account argued that “the time has come for us to recognize that highways and transit are inseparable—the two modes are interdependent and complementary.” What radical put this idea forward? Federal Highway Administrator Ray A. Barnhart, a Reagan appointee from Texas.

Once his mind was made up, Reagan fought hard for the gas tax increase. Senator Jesse Helms and a handful of other Republican Senators tried to filibuster the bill until the end of the lame duck session, but Reagan flew more supportive Senators in air force planes in the days before Christmas to get it passed. (Weingroff cites this battle over the 1982 Surface Transportation Assistance Act as the genesis of a longstanding rift between Republican conservatives and moderates.)

The great communicator made it simple: the funding mechanism was sensible and fair, and it would be relatively painless compared to watching our infrastructure turn to gravel. In a November radio address, he cleverly pointed out that the tax increase “will cost the average car owner only about $30 a year. That's less than the cost of a couple of shock absorbers.” And anyway, we needed to do it, to keep “this magnificent system” worthy of our great nation. Also, by the way, it would create jobs and allow the economy to grow.

Our current leaders and legislators are certain that it’s impossible to carry this exact same message today. Presently, to avoid asking users to pay what Reagan asked Americans to pay in 1982, the House and Senate are instead twisting themselves into contortions, interpretive dances that clearly reflect other agendas beyond mobility.

The House’s widely derided transportation and energy bill uses revenue from new drilling to pay for roads, and divorces transit, biking, and pedestrian funding from the Highway Trust Fund, setting those alternative transportation modes adrift in the general fund, where its safety cannot be guaranteed. The Senate has crafted a two-year bill maintaining the transit and highway formulas, but drawing needed additional revenue from a convoluted set of funding mechanisms that give the impression of lawmakers rifling through the federal couch cushions. The bills are so fundamentally different that a conference committee compromise seems almost impossible.

For many years now transportation journalists, wonks, and stakeholders have enjoyed saying—and knowing—that their area of concern was uniquely bipartisan. Legislators and executives from both parties, at all levels of government, have been able to debate in relatively good faith, secure in the feeling that the need for good infrastructure, and the justification for government to take part in building it, were agreed-upon principles. (One prominent conservative supporter of federal transit spending? Rick Santorum, who did rather well this week.)

True, some championed rail more than others, and some favored privatization and tolls over tax financing. But it always seemed like the variations were relatively minor, at least compared to the shared dedication to the overall goals of mobility. With the introduction of the House and Senate transportation bills, that feeling has gone away, and it’s hard to know how permanent the unravelling will be. Reagan's gas tax hike happened in a lame duck session after a mid-term election. Nothing so bipartisan or moderate is likely to be openly discussed in the buildup to a Presidential showdown. Maybe Congress should consider doing what it's done best these last few years: punt.


Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.