On Highways, Local Officials Make the Case

One of Politico’s transportation reporters, Burgess Everett, took the pulse of local transportation officials across the country. Their comments demonstrated a deep frustration with Congress (shocking, right?) and made the case for turning back transportation duties to the states, as opposed to the muddled mess of centralized-planning that is the federal government.

Currently, every driver in every state pays 18.4 cents per gallon in federal taxes. That money goes to Washington, and then Congress decides how to give that money back to the states and for which projects. It is inefficient and creates tremendous uncertainty for state transportation agencies.

Many conservatives believe it is time to turn back this responsibility back to the states. It’s now clear that local officials feel the same way:

“‘It’s really difficult when Congress can’t really agree on the most important utility that we have in the nation: transportation,’ said Leo Bowman, a commissioner in Benton County, Wash., and chairman of the National Association of Counties’ Transportation Steering Committee.

“‘We have no idea whether [the bills] are going to be short or long. We’re telling the states [to prepare] for probably a series of stopgap funding bills,’ said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. ‘We’ve been in this position before. I would say it’s actually sort of worse. I’ve got states that don’t understand they can’t get money past March 31.’”

Another local official explained this problem further:

“‘We’ve got to prepare for a number of different things that can happen. But we don’t make any concrete changes in how we do things until the legislation is passed,’ said Karen Amacker, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation.”

Yet another official described the problems with centralized-planning, which tells the states what projects to spend their money on:

“‘It’s so frustrating because the needs that we have are so great, especially in the metro areas,’ said Des Moines, Iowa, Mayor Frank Cownie, a Democrat.”

And finally, the toll that government’s involvement in the states is increasing:

“‘You would certainly like to have that certainty in your funding levels. It’ll make you sleep easier,’ [Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary] Ridley said.

Cownie said he and other mayors try to be proactive on transportation planning, but the near-daily stops and starts in Congress have changed all that.

“‘Things are moving so fast in Washington that we have to at the same time be reactive,’ he said.”

If the states were in control of their own transportation funds, instead of Congress, then they wouldn’t have to deal with the uncertainty. States would no longer have to prepare for stopgap funding bills, or worry about whether they were getting their own tax money back.

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