Big-Government Gridlock

If law is a highway, Congress will ride it way too long

The $284 billion transportation bill passed by the House this March may give satisfaction to the 417 members who voted for it. But the bill is unlikely to please the majority of drivers forced to pay for it in fuel taxes and time spent in traffic.

The debate about the highway bill will revolve around how much it costs and not about whether current federal policy on highways makes sense anymore. Keeping intact the current system of federal financing of state roads will steer taxpayers down the road to bigger government.

Federal highway financing was established in 1956 to pay for the Interstate Highway System and was supposed to be terminated in 1972. This magnificent highway system took longer to construct than anticipated, but was essentially finished in the 1980s.

However, the fuel taxes enacted to fund it are still around. A portion of the revenue is spent on non-highway programs: about a third of the money is spent on mass transit and other projects of little interest to most road users, and many of them are only loosely related to transportation.

Meanwhile, the number of licensed drivers has increased 70 percent, the number of registered vehicles has doubled, and the number of miles driven has risen about 150 percent. But the nation's road capacity has increased less than 10 percent.

What was established by the federal government as a so-called trust fund in 1956 to collect what was basically a user fee in the form of gas taxes has now become a mechanism for the exercise of federal power and for distributing special favors to interest groups and the home districts of members of Congress.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the House bill that was recently approved includes 4,128 projects selected by members for their districts, costing over $12.4 billion, of which almost $722 million are for Alaska, the home state of the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Few of these projects will improve widespread transportation conditions. The list includes items such as money for automotive museums, horse and snowmobile trails, and the reconstruction of James Madison's house.

Under the present system, there is no way of knowing whether the $284 billion authorized is too much or too little to spend on the nation's major highways, nor whether the money is going to address the most urgent transportation needs. The best way to solve this dilemma would be to abolish the federal financing of state roads—and the taxes that support it—and allow the states to make their own decisions about transportation.

Attempts to phase out the federal financing of state roads have drawn negligible congressional support—those who benefit from power never willingly abandon it.

The latest proposal for change is the Surface Transportation And Taxation Equity Act (STATE Act), introduced by Rep. Scott Garrett. This is designed to allow states to opt out of the federal system and thus free themselves from the taxes and regulations associated with it. The STATE Act would:

  • Return primary responsibility over state roads and transportation programs, as well as the attendant taxing authority to the states;
  • Eliminate the current system where fuel tax money is sent to Washington and filtered through both state and federal bureaucracies, with only a portion of the money going back to most states; and
  • Prohibit the federal government from forcing unwanted mandates on states by threatening to withhold transportation money.

There is also a provision that retains a 2-cent federal tax for transportation programs that are inherently federal in nature, such as research. This plan would allow states to take back full responsibility over their own roads—a responsibility they had before 1956.

Legislatures in Arizona and Colorado have already passed resolutions urging states to opt out of the current system. Dissatisfied drivers in other states could demand that groups like the American Automobile Association and the American Highway Users' Alliance urge states to take the same route.

Congress has an opportunity to steer transportation policy in a new direction. Perhaps one day, taxpayers and state governments will be able to wrestle control of the steering wheel from Congress. Until then, politicians in D.C. will continue to follow an outdated roadmap.

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