Bill would eliminate federal transportation funding

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A bill filed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) would gradually eliminate federal funding of transportation projects.

The measure, which has been dubbed the Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), would lower the gas tax that currently pays for most federal transportation projects from 18.4 cents-per-gallon to 3.7 cents in five years.

During the same time period, the bill would transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants.

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The concept, commonly referred to by transportation observers as "devolution," is very popular with staunch conservatives who argue that development of road and transit infrastructure should be left up to states.

Opponents of the devolution proposal typically argue that the federal government is best suited to handle transportation infrastructure that runs between states, like highways.

Sen. Lee offered a different take in a statement announcing the filing of the TEA bill.

"Under the Transportation Empowerment Act, Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached,” Lee said.

"Instead, states and cities could plan, finance, and build better-designed and more affordable projects," he continued. "Local communities should finally have the flexibility to develop the kind of transportation system they want, for less money, without politicians and special interests from other parts of the country telling them how, when, what, and where they should build."

Lee said that contrary to critics' claims, the devolution bill would boost the U.S. transportation network.

"For the country as a whole, our plan would mean a better infrastructure system, new jobs and opportunities, diverse localism, and innovative environmental protection," he said. "And for working families, it could mean more access to quality, affordable homes, less time on the road – and making it home in time for dinner with the kids.”  

Rep. Graves, who is re-introducing the TEA bill in the House after a previous failed effort, agreed.

“People want to spend less time in traffic and more time enjoying life,” he said. “Our bill will streamline the highway program, allowing more projects to be completed at a lower cost. This means commuters can move more easily between home and work, freeing up important family time and cutting out hours of frustration behind the wheel.”

Graves said the House version of the transportation devolution has garnered 19 co-sponsors.

The conservative Heritage Action group, which has supported devolution proposals in the past, came out in favor of the Lee-Graves bill this week.

The group said it would score lawmakers votes on the bill if it came to the floor of the respective chambers.

"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," Heritage Action said in a  "key alert" to its members.

"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," the Heritage Action alert continue.

The introduction of the devolution measure comes as lawmakers are grappling with a shortfall in transportation spending that is predicted to reach $20 billion.

The current transportation funding legislation, which is set to expire next year, includes about $54 billion in annual spending on road and transit projects.

The 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax only brings in about $35 billion per year. Lawmakers filled the gap in the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) bill by tapping a series of fee increases and trust fund sweeps.

Transportation advocates have for longer solution when lawmakers consider a renewal of the surface transportation bill next year. They point out the federal gas tax has not been increased, or even indexed to inflation, since 1993.