A bill filed by Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeGOP senators pitch alternatives after House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill How 'Big Pharma' stifles pharmaceutical innovation Overnight Finance: Senators spar over Wall Street at SEC pick's hearing | New CBO score for ObamaCare bill | Agency signs off on Trump DC hotel lease MORE (R-Utah) and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) would sharply reduce the gas tax that is used to pay for federal 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.
The concept, commonly referred to by transportation observers as “devolution,” is popular with staunch conservatives who argue that development of road and transit infrastructure should be left up to states.
“The federal government’s Highway Trust Fund is broke and another year of band aid funding is not going to fix it,” Lee said in a statement. “The Interstate Highway System was completed decades ago, drivers are buying less gas, and the federal government has wasted far too much money on non-highway projects. It is just an outdated system that is long overdue for reform.”
"American communities face a variety of transportation needs and it makes little sense to have Washington, DC serve as a bureaucratic middleman for basic projects,” DeSantis added. “I am proud to join with Sen. Lee and offer modern reforms to our nation’s transportation policy through the Transportation Empowerment Act. Giving states the flexibility to tackle their own infrastructure needs will lower costs while improving responsiveness to the problems unique to each community.”
Lee has offered the proposal to eliminate the federal gas tax before, but it has been opposed by Democrats and Republican leaders in both chambers who have sought to quash talk of devolution during transportation funding debates this year.
Opponents of the proposal to eliminate the federal gas tax typically argue that the federal government is best suited to handle transportation infrastructure that runs between states, like highways.
Lee offered a different take after reintroducing the TEA Act on Wednesday.
“Our bill would update today’s broken infrastructure funding system by slowly cutting the federal gas tax, thus giving states the opportunity to better identify which projects need funding and how to fund them,” he said. “By cutting out the bureaucratic middle man in Washington, states will be able to keep more of their infrastructure dollars at home where they belong and they will be able to avoid the costly and often duplicative federal regulations that can bring any infrastructure project to a screeching halt.”
The introduction of the devolution measure comes as lawmakers are grappling with a shortfall in transportation spending that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year.
The current transportation funding legislation, which is set to expire on July 31, includes about $50 billion in annual spending on road and transit projects.
The 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax only brings in about $34 billion per year. Lawmakers have filled the gap in recent years by turning to other parts of the federal budget, but they could only cobble together a two-month extension when the transportation funding deadline came up last month.
Transportation advocates have for pushed for a gas tax increase to pay for a longer infrastructure measure. They point out the federal gas tax has not been increased, or even indexed to inflation, since 1993.
Lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump, and Republicans in particular have ruled out an increase this year.