How to Resolve the Highway Trust Fund Fiasco for Good

As bland an issue as the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) may seem, the fact that it’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy makes it a little spicier.  As President Obama put it earlier this year in St. Paul, Minnesota, “We could see construction projects stop in their tracks, machines sitting idle, workers off the job.”

He was echoed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) 7%, Senate Budget Committee chairman, who said, “We’re already seeing some consequences from this crisis,” in reference to several Arkansas construction projects that have been put on hold.  Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for these transportation woes?

A bipartisan group of Senators has unveiled outlines for a six-year surface-transportation measure that would pour an additional $16 billion a year into the HTF, but throwing money at a problem usually doesn’t solve it.

The question that remains is how the measure would be funded.  Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) 5%, who considers the issue a top priority, has said that she would leave it to Senate Finance Chairman Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) 12% and House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI).

How to pay for this proposal is a serious question.  It’s reportedly just not one lawmakers are interested in answering right away.  Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) 5%, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that the committee is not interested in a short-term bailout for the fund.  Alternatively, lawmakers are looking at replenishing funds through a tax code rewrite, an idea recommended Sen. Murray, and in President Obama’s budget.

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) 68% is reportedly more interested in a short term fix.  He said, “Hopefully we can modernize that in the future, but not with this bill.”  CQ reports (sub. req’d):

The senators acknowledged that plugging the trust fund with a temporary fix such as a windfall from a corporate tax overhaul wouldn’t suffice in the long run. But facing the immediate shortfall in the trust fund, Vitter said it wasn’t prudent to argue over various sustainable solutions.

As Congress grapples with this issue, Heritage Foundation experts Emily Goff, a transportation and infrastructure policy analyst and Matthew Grinney, a research assistant in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics, have been thinking of ways to avoid a similar scenario in the future.

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They recommend a fundamental shift away from how transportation funding and transportation policy work under current law.  The debate Congress should be having, they argue, is what level of government is best equipped to handle our nation’s transportation needs.

The federal government is designed to deal with national issues, while state and local governments have authority over all other public policy issues that affect people at the state and local levels.

Likewise, history and everyday experience teach that the current centrally planned transportation system has failed American motorists and commuters. While the federal government has had some success in carrying out national projects, such as building the interstate highway system, it has been unable to solve local problems, such as reducing traffic congestion, repairing and expanding roads and bridges, and operating affordable mass transit systems.

The federal government’s current approach to surface transportation contributes to much of the problem by centralizing decision making in Washington, even though state and local authorities are more sensitive to unique, local conditions and better positioned to solve their communities’ transportation problems than are distant federal officials. 

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) 100% and Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) 79% have introduced the Transportation Empowerment Act, which would do exactly what Heritage recommends: “empower state and local governments to address the congestion and mobility challenges in their communities.”

Email your representative and encourage them to support this bill if you want to spend less time in traffic, less money on gas, and more time with your family.

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