Federal highway bill perpetuates backward policies

2012-02-25T00:00:00Z Federal highway bill perpetuates backward policiesMarc Scribner Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

House Speaker John Boehner recently noted, "In the past, highways bills represented what was wrong with Washington: earmarks, endless layers of bureaucracy, wasted tax dollars and misplaced priorities."

That also applies to the highway bill now moving through the House.

The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act has the distinction of being the first highway bill to be hated by almost everybody: fiscal conservatives, progressives, budget hawks, transit advocates and environmental activists.

The bill does have some positive elements. It would halt the harmful decades-long practice of diverting up to 20 percent of federal fuel tax revenue to mass transit. While transit may be important to urban residents and commuters, it has nothing to do with a national transportation program, which should presumably focus on promoting interstate commerce.

Only about 5 percent of Americans use mass transit to get to work, a figure that has remained flat for decades. More than 85 percent of Americans commute to work by car. And trillions of dollars' worth of freight are delivered annually by trucks on our roads.

President Obama has sought more federal urban transit spending. Such an increase would disproportionately benefit a small percentage of the country that also happens to be its wealthiest - largely paid for by America's drivers. The House bill's transit funding reform is a welcome response to the Obama administration's policies.

In addition, the bill is the first to include an energy provision that would open oil and gas production on federal lands and in offshore areas. Noble as this goal may be, it should not be linked with transportation. By expanded drilling, the bill creates a new revenue stream for the Highway Trust Fund from oil and gas lease royalties.

This mechanism - dubbed "drilling for roads" by critics - would undermine the longstanding highway funding principle that drivers should pay for the roads they use. The Highway Trust Fund was created with this in mind, and is primarily funded by federal fuel excise taxes. With each highway bill reauthorization, Congress estimates future tax receipts and then sets the funding level.

In recent years, however, revenues have been failing to cover federal expenditures, which has led Congress to bail out the Highway Trust Fund instead of cutting spending or raising additional user-based revenue. And as drilling royalties are typically directed into the general fund, the House bill's funding scheme amounts to a bailout.

The user-pays principle helps restrain spending and keep investment mismanagement in check. Ending it would compound the very serious problems the U.S. transportation system already faces.

Our transportation infrastructure is in trouble. Much of the interstate highway system is nearing the end of its life and will need to be reconstructed from the roadbed up. Revenue from highway users has plateaued while construction costs increased.

Solving these problems should start with winding down the federal government's funding role in surface transportation. If state, regional, and municipal authorities are made responsible for funding their own infrastructure, they will have an incentive to innovate and take advantage of the tools they need to do so. These include replacing fuel taxes with electronic tolling, implementing congestion pricing and public-private partnerships.

The current House bill would perpetuate the reckless, wasteful spending that has long characterized highway bill reauthorizations.

Marc Scribner is a land-use and transportation policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Write to him: CEI, 1899 L Street NW, Floor 12, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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