Stimulus By Any Other Name

by Reihan Salam

During the fiscal-stimulus debate, Alice Rivlin, among others, suggested that Congress ought to separate short-term measures from long-term measures. Specifically, she suggested that Congress devise a long-term infrastructure strategy, which would include dedicated revenue streams that would go into effect once a recovery was under way. Now might be the right time for Rivlin’s concept to make a comeback. Kristina Moore of the Journal reports that there is an emerging bipartisan consensus “that more spending is needed on infrastructure projects.” I was particularly struck by the fact that Kentucky representative Thomas Massie, a staunch libertarian Republican, seems keen on the idea, telling Moore that “transportation is one of the few things that Congress actually should spend money on.”

Not surprisingly, there is no consensus on how to finance infrastructure. My view is that devolving responsibility for surface transportation to state government is the best way forward, and that transportation should be funded primarily by user fees. Members of Congress aren’t inclined to embrace higher gas taxes or electronic tolling or VMT taxes, but state-level public road enterprises might be more inclined to embrace novel approaches to road pricing. But perhaps there is a role for a surge in federal transportation funding as part of a transition to a more decentralized approach.