Center for American Progress: TEA Act ‘misguided’

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The liberal Center for American Progress is criticizing Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) for his proposal to eliminate the federal gas tax. 

Lee has sponsored a bill that would gradually devolve federal transportation spending to states, an idea which has long been popular with conservative think tanks. 

The measure, labeled the Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), would reduce the federal gas tax that is traditionally used to pay for infrastructure improvements from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents within five years.

In lieu of the current gas tax system, the TEA Act would transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants. 

The Center for American Progress said the measure would hurt states like Lee’s Utah.

“Federal funds touch almost every aspect of Utah’s transportation system,” the group wrote in a blog post on its website. “For instance, federal funds help build and maintain the TRAX, FrontRunner, and local bus systems. Each year, the Utah Transit Authority, or UTA, provides more than 42 million trips, carrying residents a combined 250 million miles.”

Lee’s legislation would drastically alter that relationship, the center said.

“Sen. Lee’s proposal, misleadingly called the Transportation Empowerment Act, would eliminate all federal formula funding for public transportation; reduce highway funding by 80 percent, a loss of $248 million; weaken protections for clean air and critical lands; and effectively eliminate the ability of Congress to set national priorities,” the group wrote.

The debate over federal transportation funding comes at a time when Congress is debating a potential reauthorization of the road and transit appropriations.

The current surface transportation bill, which authorizes the collection of the gas tax, is scheduled to expire in September.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has projected that the Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to run out of money around the same time without additional congressional act.

The current transportation bill, which was passed in 2012, includes about $54 billion per year in infrastructure projects.

The gas tax currently brings in about $34 billion per year. Congress used money from other areas of the federal budget to make up the difference in the 2012 bill.

Transportation advocates have pushed for an increase in the federal gas tax, which has been stagnant since 1993, or a new funding source to replace its revenue.

Advocates have also pushed for a longer five-or-six year transportation bill, but the Congressional Budget Office has projected that a six-year measure would require $100 billion in new revenue in addition to the expected $34 billion-per-year gas tax intake.