Both at a federal and state level, government is supposed to work in a way that makes sense. On one side of the equation sits all the tax dollars collected. On the other side are a set of competing claims for spending. In the middle sit our elected representatives. The theory says these are the wisest people we voters could find to represent us when it comes to deciding how to spend the money. It’s a shame it doesn’t quite work in the real world. The representatives get stuck in a rut of party politics and make decisions based on those beliefs and not on the evidence of what spending might do the most good. Even more excitingly, some of these politicians would rather cut the amount of tax collected so it will become even harder to balance the budgets.
Given the polarization, it’s become even more important governments should have a reliable way of collecting data about what’s happening on the ground. With these statistics, it’s then possible to draw up policies to focus spending where it’s needed most. Except there’s increasing evidence this data collection and statistical analysis is deeply flawed. As a result, our heard-earned tax dollars are being spent on project that are, at best, low priority and, at worst, unnecessary. The chart above shows federal and state governments have consistently overestimated the growth in the use of motor vehicles. In fact, the use of vehicles for private transport peaked in the mid-2000s and has been declining ever since.
It doesn’t matter there’s a big debate about why the number of miles driven has been declining. That may be relevant to deciding whether the trend will reverse, e.g. when the recession is finally over, employment may rise and we might feel more confident as a nation. But it can’t change the factual reality nor can it justify continuing to spend such a high percentage of our tax dollars on building new roads. So here comes a series of facts:
• states are making it more difficult to get a driver’s license;
• unemployed people drive less and youth unemployment is high;
• older people drive less and America is an aging nation;
• the retail price of new vehicles continues to rise faster than inflation;
• gas prices remain high;
• car insurance rates are rising;
• it’s easier to meet friends online:)
This suggests the trend may not reverse. But none of the federal or state estimates show any decline in the estimated number of miles driven. Why? Because politicians collect campaign donations from corporations that manufacture vehicles, undertake civil engineering projects like road building and maintenance, bridge building, etc., produce ethanol, refine oil, and have invested in businesses which depend on people traveling to their sites. In fact, less money would improve most people’s lives and increase property values by upgrading local roads. Maintaining the subsidy to produce ethanol is uneconomic. Maintaining the same level of refining may not be necessary allowing the industry to phase out the old refineries which pollute the most. Indeed, there would be many benefits for the people if only the governments would deal with reality as it is.