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Marco Rubio’s Plan to Defund Highways Isn’t Quite as Crazy as it Sounds

Marco RubioMarco Rubio
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco RubioPhotograph by Christian K. Lee — AP

Actual policy positions seem like a low priority for Republican presidential hopefuls, but Marco Rubio has been something of an exception. Along with takes on Obamacare (he’s against it), net neutrality (he’s against it), and Cuba (he’s against it), Rubio recently released his position on federal transportation funding. He’s against that, too, proposing to cut the national gasoline tax by 80%.

That might sound odd, considering that the federal Highway Trust Fund is already struggling. Even Rubio’s fellow far-right Republican James Inhofe said in July that the problems have hurt the overall economy.

But Rubio’s not simply giving up on highways—instead, he wants the states to take more responsibility for funding and management. The idea is known as “devolution,” and (unlike evolution) it has some vocal support on the right. For instance, a bill along the same lines was proposed by two Republican senators in 2013.

“The argument is that the national mission has diminished to a certain extent,” says Steven Polzin of the Center for Urban Transportation Research, in Rubio’s home state of Florida. That national mission includes the interstate highway system, which is largely complete, and a national high-speed passenger rail network, an effort that has mostly stalled.

Under the current system, Rubio and other critics claim that federal priorities trump local needs, and the money isn’t distributed equitably. One particular sticking point has been the portion of funding that goes to mass transit projects in dense areas, mostly the northeast. Rubio says he would phase out those programs.

Polzin points out two main risks for the plan. States with high interstate traffic but smaller populations, particularly in the West, could end up without enough local revenue to maintain their portions of the system.

“And there’s always the concern that some states won’t have the [political] will to do it,” says Polzin, “And the system will deteriorate.”

Many federal transportation agencies engaged in research, safety regulation, and monitoring are also funded from the gas tax Rubio proposes to cut.

Whatever its consequences, Polzin sees little chance for the plan to become reality, with or without a Rubio presidency. “It’s never had any significant constituency. There are an awful lot of vested interest groups that have a big stake in the way things are currently run.” That includes a broad swathe of highway builders.

But the reality we live with now is actually a milder version of the proposal. With no increase in the gas tax since 1993, and fuel efficiency gains further cutting revenue, states such as Oregon have increasingly pursued alternative and additional transportation funding. That has included just the sort of public-private partnerships that Rubio wants to encourage by cutting federal funding.

Rubio, though third in public polling among Republican candidates as of this week, has a strong lead in political prediction markets, and has gained some high-profile backers. The smart money seems to think (or just hope) that current frontrunners Ben Carson and Donald Trump will eventually cede the field to more traditional candidates.

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