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Congress Should Retain its Highway Funding Role

Posted By John Hausladen, Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Updated: Monday, November 3, 2014
Congress Should Retain its Highway Funding Role – Congress should reject the “devolution” proposal contained in the so-called “Transportation Empowerment Act” (TEA). In short, the TEA would
strip away most Federal funding for surface transportation projects, handing the responsibility to
state and local governments. The only thing this does is “empower” Congress to shirk its Constitutional duties to promote interstate commerce. An ATA background paper, reprinted here, does a nice job summarizing this misguided guided bill.

Reduces Funding 80% - The TEA proposal virtually eliminates the federal government’s role it relates to the movement of the nearly 70% of freight that is transported on the nation’s highways. The bill would reduce funding for the federal-aid highway program by more than 80% by 2019, from $45 billion to less than $8 billion.

Widens Funding Gap - According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Interstates will require at least $17 billion in annual investment to simply maintain current levels of maintenance and congestion, and more than $33 billion per year to make the investments necessary to improve the system. Furthermore, while the Interstate System is certainly critical to the trucking industry, it only carries 40% of truck traffic. The National Highway System, which carries 97% of truck miles traveled, requires an annual investment of $75 billion, according to USDOT.

Shackles vs. Empowers - The amendment doesn’t “empower” states; it saddles them with 90% of the fiscal responsibility for supporting highways that, under the Constitution, the federal government has an obligation to help maintain. While we agree that certain projects funded with highway user fees are questionable, and some federal requirements increase project costs, a better approach is to reform the system, not to risk lives and the nation’s economic future by disinvesting from a highway system that is already under-capitalized.

Diversion Will Increase - The fact is that even if states were able to replace federal funds with new revenue (and there is no guarantee that they would), in many states the diversion of funds to non-highway purposes is even more extensive than it is under the federal-aid program. Altogether, USDOT reports that in 2012 states diverted $8 billion in highway user fee revenue to non-highway projects and programs.

Increase Costs Likely - Furthermore, eliminating federal funds from a project will not automatically reduce project costs related to federal requirements because in many cases these requirements will
continue. For example, 32 states currently apply Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws to nonfederal contracts. In addition, for many projects federal environmental review requirements would continue, even if no federal money is used.

A Disaster - The devolution proposal represents abandonment by Congress of its Constitutional obligation to promote interstate commerce. Decimating the federal-aid highway program would prove disastrous to the states’ ability to maintain and improve their highways. This is particularly true for those states with a small tax base and an extensive highway network that supports a large share of interstate traffic. The TEA is a bad deal for not just truckers, but every user of the highway system and should be rejected.

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