A better fix for roads – spend responsibly

This past weekend, the Washington Post editorial board joined Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in calling for a gas tax increase – a “permanent and simple fix” to the Highway Trust Fund’s (HTF) financial woes.

The board is correct that Congress needs to adopt a policy that will put an end to the crisis that looms every few years, in which the federal government is forced to look for new funding to keep HTF afloat for a few months at a time. But the board is incorrect to assert that raising taxes is the answer.

Instead of further burdening the American people, Congress should reform transportation spending to eliminate diversions, return control of local projects to the states, and reduce burdensome regulations that add time and cost. Doing so would save billions of dollars and eliminate the need for higher fuel taxes.

First, Congress should end federal aid for transit and other non-highway spending. Transit ridership (which is concentrated in just six cities) and non-highway spending (like bike trails and landscaping) are inherently local projects that should be left to the states. As the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards explained to the Senate Finance Committee, states would be more flexible, responsive, and accountable to transportation consumers, and would save federal taxpayers billions of dollars.

Not only would states be free to pursue and fund these projects as they wish, but they would free Montana ranchers from being forced to subsidize metro rides for Wall Street bankers.

Moreover, states are already taking the lead on transportation infrastructure, often using private investment to do so. Right here in Northern Virginia, the Dulles Greenway was completed with $350 million of private debt and equity – and without government subsidies.

As the Heritage Foundation’s Emily Goff wrote for TownHall.com, more than one-third of HTF dollars are spent “off-road.” Congress should not increase the gas tax because it is no longer a “user fee” as it was originally intended to be. Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for Washington’s reluctance to spend responsibly.

Over-regulation also hurts taxpayers and transportation consumers. For example, a 2011 Joint Economic Committee study found that Davis-Bacon labor rules inflate wages by an average of 22 percent, and add to the bureaucratic hurdles of highway projects. Planning, approval, and review processes can add years to project completion. In addition, federal aid breeds bureaucracy, adding to the “Byzantine sprawl” of agencies and lobbying that already plagues everything Washington, DC gets its hands on. Transferring significant transportation infrastructure responsibility to the states could help minimize these issues.

Both the Obama administration and most of Congress understand that a gas tax increase would be dead on arrival. The American people are right to oppose a gas tax increase, because as we have seen so often in government, higher taxes do not result in better outcomes. There is no reason to believe transportation spending will be any different – more revenue will only exacerbate existing problems, and the American people would be left to pay for it.

Congress is again close to an agreement that would use gimmicky revenue mechanisms to pay for a few months of HTF solvency over ten years. The Washington Post editorial board and the rest of the country are rightfully frustrated by these maneuvers. But when it comes time for a long-term transportation bill, Congress should not seek to burden the American people anymore. Instead, they should seek to become more responsible with those Americans’ hard-earned dollars.

Americans already spend billions every year in gas taxes. Unfortunately, these dollars are not going nearly as far as they could. Until the government gets serious about spending responsibly, they should not ask the American people for an additional dime.

Chougule is a policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy organization.

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