Instead of raising the gas tax, stop wasting money on frivolous projects

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A cardinal rule of government ought to be: stop wasting money before demanding taxpayers hand over more. When it comes to the Highway Trust Fund and the gas tax, Congress has failed to learn this simple lesson.

The federal highway program is set to expire a year from now, but lawmakers looking to fund their pet projects are eager to get started. So the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has already approved a bill that would authorize billions more in projects than the federal gas tax will bring in. The thing is though, they don’t know how to pay for it.

So naturally, the first thing they want to do is raise the gas tax. That’s actually the last thing they should do.

A healthy road system is integral to a dynamic economy. It allows people and goods to move where they need to efficiently and safely.

The national highway system is financed by the federal gas tax — a user fee paid by American drivers and collected in the Highway Trust Fund. Washington divvies up the money among the states to help fund road maintenance and improvements.

But Congress routinely writes a highway bill whose cost exceeds what the gas tax takes in – including billions for things that have nothing to do with roads and bridges. The highway bill recently approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is no exception.

This bipartisan behemoth, sponsored by Sens. John Barasso (R-Wyo.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), is being touted as the largest highway bill in history. It would provide $287 billion, $60 billion more than the last highway bill, which was bailed out by $50 billion in general fund revenues.

Now the Senate Finance Committee is charged with finding a way to pay for all this.

But instead of doing what any family would do – look for frivolous spending that could be trimmed — increasing the gas tax is near the top of their agenda.

That means you’d pay hundreds more every year in taxes.

Before rushing to increase the tax burden on American workers, families and businesses, lawmakers should take a hard look at how the billions they already collect in gas taxes is being spent.

Congress has raided the highway trust fund for decades, diverting money to projects that have nothing to do with roads and bridges. The biggest diversion goes to subsidize local transit projects. That might be a good deal for those who get cheaper fares, but drivers in Iowa, Nebraska or New Hampshire shouldn’t have to pay for the D.C. and New York subway systems.

Congress has also frittered away federal road money on local projects like ferry boats, bike paths and boardwalks, and even a sanctuary for white squirrels. But transit riders, ferry boat passengers, cyclists, pedestrians and squirrels never pay one penny into the Highway Trust Fund. All told, Congress raids nearly 30 percent of Trust Fund proceeds for projects unrelated to roads and bridges.

If Congress is looking for more money to spend on highways, redirecting gas tax money from squirrel sanctuaries is a better place to start than raising taxes. Ending Highway Trust Fund diversions would generate $46 billion over just five years, without increasing taxes on anybody. Yet rather than ending these diversions, the Senate bill doubles down by directing even more money to new programs that could be spent on roads.

Before demanding that everyone pay more, Washington should end its fascination with these frou-frou projects and keep its promise to America’s drivers: use the gas tax for roads and bridges.

Alison Acosta Winters is a senior policy fellow at Americans for Prosperity.

Tags Gas Tax Highway Trust Fund Tom Carper

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