Co-Sponsorship of the Transportation Empowerment Act

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) 100% and Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) 79% introduced the Transportation Empowerment Act (S.1702/ H.R. 3486), which would turn back control of the federal highway program (including transit) to the states by incrementally decreasing the federal gas tax and the size of the federal program, and in turn empower the states to fund and manage their transportation programs and priorities—not those of Washington bureaucrats or influential lobbyists. Currently, American motorists and truckers pay a federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon at the pump; the money is funneled into the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and funneled back to the states via complex congressional formulas, and billions are diverted each year to programs that do not improve congestion or increase mobility.   The Transportation Empowerment Act would empower states by allowing them to keep and control their gasoline tax revenues, set their infrastructure priorities, control their transportation decisions, and partner with the private sector to meet local needs.

The legislation would solve myriad problems, not the least of which is the flawed dynamic between the federal government and the states with regard to how federal gas tax dollars are spent. The states and private sector have proven more efficient users of taxpayer money, while the federal government through the Highway Trust Fund has wasted an unjustifiable amount of money through inefficiency, burdensome regulations, and distracting politicization—not to mention paying for the pet projects of lawmakers and special interests.   

Not only is this legislation necessary if lawmakers want to improve efficiency, but it is timely.  The original purpose of the HTF was to construct the interstate highway system, which was largely complete in the 1980s.  But since then, Congresses—lobbied by special interests—have broadened its mission to cover “transit, environmental mitigation, ferry boats, bicycle paths, and nature trails,” which do not benefit those who pay for the program.  The Heritage Foundation also notes:

The combination of overspending, inflation, increased vehicle fuel efficiency, and effects of the recession on gasoline consumption in recent years have caused funding shortfalls in the HTF. Rather than address its overspending problem, Congress chose to shore up the HTF with tens of billions of dollars in general fund cash transfers—an imprudent and unsustainable quick fix that worsens federal deficits. 

This is an unsustainable course of action, which is why the HTF “will have insufficient resources to meet all of its obligations” next fall.

Last year’s reform, MAP-21, promised changes, but fell short in many ways because of its Washington-first approach.  MAP-21 perpetuated dysfunctional practices of the federal government, such as the infusion of cash from the General Fund into the HTF.  Heritage explains these “bailouts perpetuate spending on inefficient transportation programs and worsen federal budget deficits.”  Also, while MAP-21 eliminated some frivolous spending previously allocated by federal lawmakers for unnecessary projects, it did not go far enough.  It still required 2 percent of total highway funding be diverted to local and state programs, such as transit projects, thereby starving general purpose roads of funds.

The Transportation Empowerment Act would allow each state to keep their funds and use them in ways they deem appropriate.  It would provide states relief from federal regulations so that they could put local priorities first and fund projects that provide congestion relief, capacity expansion, and enhanced mobility.