One of the numerous legislative deadlines that Congress will be forced to confront this session is the expiration of the 8th short-term extension of the 2005 surface transportation authorization law (SAFETEA-LU). With federal transportation spending growing beyond its revenue source, an imbalance between donor and recipient states, inefficient and superfluous construction projects popping up all over the country, and burdensome mass transit mandates on states, it is time to inject some federalism into transportation spending.
Throughout the presidential campaign, many of the candidates have expressed broad views of state’s rights, while decrying the expansion of the federal government. In doing so, some of the candidates have expressed the conviction that states have the right to implement tyranny or pick winners and losers, as long as the federal government stays out of it. Romneycare and state subsidies for green energy are good examples. The reality is that states don’t have rights; they certainly don’t have the power to impose tyranny on citizens by forcing them to buy health insurance or regulating the water in their toilet bowels – to name a few. They do, however, reserve powers under our federalist system of governance to implement legitimate functions of government. A quintessential example of such a legitimate power is control over transportation and infrastructure spending.
The Highway Trust Fund was established in 1956 to fund the Interstate Highway System (IHS). The fund, which is administered by the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration, has been purveyed by the federal gasoline tax, which now stands at 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 for diesel fuel). Beginning in 1983, Congress began siphoning off some of the gas tax revenue for the great liberal sacred cow; the urban mass transit system. Today, mass transit receives $10.2 billion in annual appropriations, accounting for a whopping 20% of transportation spending. Additionally, the DOT mandates that states use as much as 10% of their funding for all sorts of local pork projects, such as bike paths and roadside flowers.
As a result of the inefficiencies and wasteful mandates of our top-down approach to transportation spending, trust fund outlays have exceeded its revenue source by an average of $12 billion per year, even though the IHS – the catalyst for the gasoline tax – has been completed for 20 years. In 2008, the phantom trust fund was bailed out with $35 billion in general revenue, and has been running a deficit for the past few years. Congress has not passed a 6-year reauthorization bill since 2005, relying on a slew of short-term extensions, the last of which is scheduled to expire on March 31.
Short-term funding is no way to plan for long-term infrastructure projects. In their alacrity to gobble up the short-term money before it runs out, state and local governments tend to use the funds on small time and indivisible projects, such as incessant road repaving, instead of better planned long-term projects.
It’s time for a long-term solution, one which will inject much-needed federalism and free-market solutions into our inefficient and expensive transportation policy.
It is time to abolish the Highway Trust Fund and its accompanying federal gasoline tax. Twenty years after the completion of the IHS, we must devolve all transportation authority to the states, with the exception of projects that are national in scope. Each state should be responsible for its own projects, including maintenance for its share of the IHS. Free of the burden of shouldering special interest pork projects of other states, each state would levy its own state gas tax to purvey its own transportation needs. If a state wants a robust mass transit system or pervasive bike lanes, let the residents of that state decide whether they want to pay for it. That is true federalism in action.
The most prudent legislation that would transition responsibility for transportation spending back to the states is Rep. Scott Garrett’s STATE Act (HR 1737). Under this legislation, all states would have the option to opt out of the federal transportation system and keep 16.4 cents of their federal gasoline tax contribution. States would have the ability to use that money to raise their state gasoline tax and direct those funds more efficiently for their own needs. States would be free to use the funds for vital needs, instead of incessant repaving projects that are engendered by short-term federal stimulus grants, and which cause unnecessary traffic juggernauts. States could then experiment with new innovations and free-market solutions that open up infrastructure projects to the private sector. The Tenth Amendment is not just a flag-waving principle; it works in the real world.
It takes a lot of impudence on the part of the President to blame Republicans for crumbling infrastructure. It is his support for a failed central government system that is stifling the requisite innovations that are needed to deal with state and local problems.
There is no issue that is more appropriate for state solutions than transportation spending. Every Republican member should co-sponsor the STATE ACT so we can put an end to three decades of flushing transportation down the toilet. Also, with the news that Rick Perry will head up Newt Gingrich’s Tenth Amendment initiatives, this might be a good time to advocate for federalist solutions in transportation and infrastructure. When Obama starts ascribing blame for our “crumbling infrastructure” during his State of the Union Address, Perry and Gingrich should use their megaphone to pin the blame on the donkey’s stranglehold over the transportation needs of states.
With only two months until the authorization for the federal gas tax expires, most other proposals will only further entrench the power of the federal government. Call your members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor Scott Garrett’s HR 1737 and stand for bold conservative solutions.