The Status Quo

(Photo: Guillaume Paumier)

If you ever travel to Israel (which, BTW, is a phenomenal place to visit regardless of your attitudes toward religion or Middle Eastern politics), you’ll certainly see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on what many believe is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. But you might come away a bit disappointed; the church has something of a disorganized and ramshackle feel.

The problem is not that the site isn’t considered sacred, but that it’s considered too sacred. Thanks to its obvious import, it is shared—and has been for thousands of years—by multiple religious denominations, including the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox sects. (Sorry, Protestants, since Luther’s 95 Theses were not posted until 1517 you are Johnny-come-latelys and don’t get a piece of the action.)

One might hope that this arrangement would not be a problem given the principles of Christian brotherliness. But this is not the case. Keeping order among so many squabbling sects, all of whom passionately claim authority over some or all of the structure, is no simple task.

To maintain a modicum of peace and sidestep the key issue of who owns what, the situation in the church has been almost completely frozen, stretching back for hundreds of years. The current arrangement, set in stone by the Ottoman sultan in 1853, codifies permission to worship in, and responsibilities for, parts of the church in excruciating detail based on traditions which have evolved (sometimes mysteriously) out of the mists of time. Virtually nothing can change. For example, a wooden ladder last used for maintenance no later than 1757 remains pointlessly in place because allowing somebody to touch it would imply that his sect has control over that area.

The slightest deviation from the status quo can cause mayhem. To give but a few recent examples: in 2002 a Greek monk had the temerity to move his chair from the sun to the shade, enraging the Ethiopians and causing in a brawl in which 11 were hospitalized. In 2004, a door being left ajar was taken as a slight by the Orthodox and a fist fight broke out among the various clerics. In 2008, the ejection of a Greek monk caused a fracas: even the police called to the scene to impose order were attacked by the enraged mob of priests. Another donnybrook, this time between Armenian and Greek monks, broke out a few months later.

Aside from the question of whether this behavior is appropriate for men and women who have devoted themselves to a religion of peace and love, the status quo arrangement has had troubling implications for the structure itself. Parts of the church are falling apart due to the inability of the parties to agree on how to complete desperately needed repairs.

Okay, I’m getting to what this has to do with transportation. In my opinion, this arrangement is a sorry metaphor for the reauthorization of the national transportation legislation, which was signed into law (and christened “MAP-21”) in early July.

In my last post, I wrote (without being ironic) about all the considerable positives involved with this law, the main one being that the two parties reached a broad, bipartisan agreement in this climate of extreme partisan rancor.

However, the new legislation hardly represents a triumph of legislative efficiency, let alone brotherly love. It took 10 stopgap extensions stretching over a period of almost four years to get an agreement on a “permanent” solution—which will be in force for only 27 months until the whole circus starts all over again. 

Moreover, the legislation demonstrates that when an agreement is absolutely needed (neither party wanted to be held responsible for  the failure of a “jobs bill” in an election year), but in a climate of zero trust, the status quo principle is often the only thing that can get everybody onboard, for better or worse.

The problem with status quo agreements is obvious. As time marches on, the principles of these settlements become increasingly anachronistic, and nothing of import ultimately gets decided on.

To be fair, the new transportation legislation does include some reform. But all of the major, fundamental issues—including the amount of spending, the level of the gas taxes used to fund that spending, the distribution of the funds among the states, the proper balance between support for mass transit and roads, etc.—were simply frozen where they had been in the prior authorizing legislation, though certainly our needs must have changed in the last five years.

This kicks the can down the road on the key issues. One fundamental one is whether transportation should be paid for out of user fees, the most important one being the federal gas tax. Thanks to the fact that it is widely despised, the level of that tax has remained in place, at 18.4 cents a gallon, since 1993. But due to the effects of inflation, the real rate has been perpetually declining, down to today’s level of about 11.5 cents in 1993 dollars.

As a result, transportation-related taxes no longer cover transportation-related expenditures, and the current legislation was forced to dip even further into non-transportation-related money to make up the difference. Essentially, as we move down this road, those who travel less are being forced to pay to accommodate the desires of those who choose to travel more.

Most economists believe that economic actors should be required to pay for the full cost of what they consume. Indeed, they believe that travelers should not just pay for the visible services they require—the costs of maintaining roads and running mass transit systems—but for the invisible externalities they create, like air pollution or accidents that kill pedestrians. If these externalities are to be internalized, gas taxes should perhaps be a multiple of what they are today. Yet we are currently unable to add even a few measly pennies to cover even the explicit costs. 

Funding transportation out of other revenues might have merit—perhaps transportation produces positive externalities which warrant this—but this should be settled through reasoned debate, not an agreement to keep the chair in the sun.

Another key issue the current legislation sidesteps is of even greater import. It’s the existential question of whether we should even have a large federal transportation program at all.

Fifty years ago it made sense to have a collaborative national effort to create an interstate highway network, but we are no longer involved in such grand enterprises. Today the vast majority of transportation programs have only local import, and it is questionable whether taxpayers in Vermont should be forced to fund a light rail project in Denver.

In the past, the federal program has meant fiscal transfers from “donor states” to “donees.” (Texas fares particularly poorly here while the good people of Alaska make out like bandits.) Due to the waxing non-transportation funding I just mentioned, the GAO now reports that all states are donees, getting more back from Washington than they put in in terms of fuel and other transportation-related taxes. But still, there are donees and donees, and some might consider interstate differences like this unjust. 

To reduce the impact of this phenomenon, the rules permit no state to get significantly less out of the program than it puts in. But if all states get out an amount roughly proportional to what they pay in, why even have a federal transportation program at all? Wouldn’t it be better to just let states keep their money to spend it as they see fit, without federal meddling?

These and other fundamental questions were not addressed in order to keep the brawls in the Capitol down to a minimum. But these issues aren’t going away, and not acting is in itself a form of choice. Hopefully at some point the parties will reach an agreement to at least consider these questions head on. If not, the status quo might mean bridges and highways crumbling like the Aedile in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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  1. Seminymous Coward says:

    Road wear scales as the fourth power of the per-axle weight. This means only heavy vehicles are meaningfully degrading the roads. A gasoline tax is therefore not actually very well targeted with regard to maintenance or replacement. It might be appropriate for funding new routes, though.

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    • James says:

      Except that roads wear from factors other than traffic, at least in areas with seasons. Even a lightly-travelled road will eventually degrade from freeze-thaw damage.

      A gasoline (and diesel fuel) tax may not be perfectly targeted, but surely it’s better than the untargeted plan of taking the money from general funds, and requires no additional bureaucracy or infrastructure.

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      • Seminymous Coward says:

        I’d be curious to see any studies you might know of dealing with the wear effects of (just) weather on pavement. I couldn’t find any, and I did find some explanations of how the initial damage from heavy vehicles is magnified over time by freeze cycles. Would just cars even manage to impair the outer asphalt’s weather protection?

        Regarding your claim that a tax by per-axle weight would impose some kind of major new administrative burden, I don’t think that’s generally considered when the government chooses its taxes; sales tax certainly isn’t a gem in that regard.

        In any case, I’m pretty sure most states make heavy vehicles pay more for registration and the like. They just don’t scale it by the fourth power of per-axle weight, even though GAWR is a readily available statistic. Furthermore, there is a great deal of weigh station infrastructure already present, as Mark pointed out below. What’s absent is political will.

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      • James says:

        I don’t know of studies, but I do see sections of little-used or abandoned roadways (e.g. where a new routing has cut off curves), and they degrade rather than remaining pristine.

        As for taxing by axle weight, the wear a particular vehicle causes depends not only on the weight, but on how much it is driven. Thus my neighbor’s 40-foot RV (which I’ve seen driven maybe twice a year, for about 100 miles per trip) probably causes a lot less road wear than my well under 2000 lb Honda Insight does by its 8000 or so miles of annual driving.

        The current weigh station infrastructure only works for long-haul trucking, and only on selected routes. For instance, I live in northern Nevada (near Reno). If I want to go into California, I’ll only pass a weigh station if I use I-80. If I want to avoid the weigh station, I can go via US 395 (north or south), US 50, California routes 4, 88 or 89, and any number of minor roads.

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      • Seminymous Coward says:

        Little-used and abandoned roadways have had their deterioration started by vehicle traffic. I find it much more believable that weather can exacerbate a problem than initiate one, though.

        On the subject of registration rates, remember that quartic axle weight absolutely dwarfs linear usage time. Your Insight wears the road 40 times longer, sure. A 2013 Winnebago Adventurer 37F, for example, wears it 6761 times faster than a 2013 Insight.* That means your neighbor’s RV very likely does over 150 times more damage to the roads in those two short trips than you manage all year.

        Furthermore, RVs are the only example I can think of for rarely driven vehicles with high axle weight; if you’d like, you could special case them with a linear reduction of their fee. More broadly, you could require odometer readings for registration renewals.

        Regarding the weigh stations, I admit my claim was based on assuming they served some kind of useful enforcement purpose currently. Presumably there’s some reason truckers don’t just go around them now.

        * That’s based on and which is higher than the approximate value you gave for your possibly non-2013 Insight. The RV was selected based on looking like a mid-tier class A of approximately the right size from the first manufacturer whose name popped into my mind; I did not do a thorough check on how representative it is. (9000^4+15000^4)/((0.58*2767)^4+(0.42*2767)^4)

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      • Nicole says:

        Asphalt will deteriorate with age – the bitumeneous binders oxidise with time, losing the “stickiness” that bind the small rocks. Once the asphalt has oxidised, water can penetrate the pavement and the wearing surface will rapidly deteriorate. Of course vehicles on an old sealed road will increase the rate of deterioration, but nevertheless, in my experience, without traffic, a spray sealed road will be growing plants (weeds) within 5 years

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      • James says:

        On the registration weights, you may be correct on your calculation of wear caused by RV vs Insight, but my real point was something like neighbor’s 100 mile/year RV vs the guy down the street who takes his identical one out every weekend. In that case – identical weight per axle – wear is proportional to distance.

        On the weigh stations, the enforcement purpose is to find overloaded trucks. If your truck is not overloaded, it makes sense to take the more direct routes, since stopping (or these days, just driving across the scales without stopping) takes only a few seconds, and incurs no extra cost. On the other side, it makes economic sense to have only a few stations on routes with heavy traffic. But if you’re planning on using them for tax/fee enforcement, you’d need many more of them, in order to intercept all traffic.

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  2. nobody.really says:

    Great metaphor!

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  3. Mark says:

    Regarding the road damage by heavy vehicles: several European countries have special tolls for trucks only. For Switzeralnd the tolls are high enough that trucking firms choose other routes from North to South, i.e. Austria.
    US states already have the infrastructure to charge a truck toll. There are weigh stations with transponders at many Interstate highways at the state line. The state highway authority would only have to add a payment system to existing devices. Politically this would be a non issue because states that charge the highest toll would have the lowest transit truck traffic and therefore the least road damage. The feds would only have to issue a waiver so the states can charge whatever they want.

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  4. Paul M. says:

    The biggest problem with making the States pay for it is the impending “Unfunded Mandate” screamers. If you gave all the money back to the states, but required them to spend it on road infrastructure, you would have governors and state legislatures up in arms about “unfunded mandates being handed down from Washington outsiders!” The last time the government agreed to fund a program that the states would pay to administer, the federal government got sued… Clearly the “states rights” people are just looking for excuses.

    By making the residents of the states pay a federal gas tax and controlling distribution of that money to the states, the federal government can insure that 1.) The money is being spent on road infrastructure and 2.) The states don’t get up in arms about being told what to do with “their” money.

    The combination of taxing the citizen and giving the money to the state makes the state feel like it is getting some of that federal honey without feeling like they are having something external imposed upon them. As bizarre as it is, our political system requires that we have this insane system of run-around if we wanted to have infrastructure at all.

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    • James says:

      You’re overlooking the fact that a road running through a state is often not intended for the sole benefit of that state. Take I-80 for example. Outside the maybe 50 miles through the Reno area, Nevadans’ own needs could be easily handled by two lanes of asphalt (maybe less), at much less cost than the current road. Same doubtless applies to Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska…

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  5. 164 says:

    Interesting story about the church but you lost me on the “Most economists believe…” statement.

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  6. RPM says:

    Wow. That’s quite a stretch, to compare a church in Israel to US transportation laws!

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