On highways, put states back in the driver's seat
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In 1919, a young army officer named Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower participated in a meandering cross-country military convoy from the White House — at times travelling no faster than 5 miles per hour — arriving in San Francisco some 3,251 miles and 62 days later. Today, motorists utilizing the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways can drive fairly straight from the nation's capital to the Golden Gate Bridge in 43 hours, via 2,821 miles of Ike-inspired freeways.


The national highway system inaugurated by President Eisenhower in 1956 was essentially completed in 1992. That's where the federal role in highway funding should have ended, with the states returned to the driver's seat.

Nonetheless, a Washington-centric debate is raging while there is a growing shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which is estimated to be $13 billion for fiscal year 2015. The HTF is financed predominantly from per-gallon taxes on fossil fuels used to propel most vehicles: gasoline (18.3 cents) and diesel (24.3 cents). Excessive spending, unchecked by major structural reforms to highway financing, will likely result in a $180 billion deficit over the next decade. In typical Washington fashion, the most common refrain for a long-term solution is to just raise the gas tax to cover the shortfall. Over the short term, general revenue is being siphoned off to shore up the trust fund.

Federal lawmakers need to acknowledge that the current system is not just broke; it's broken. More fuel-efficient cars have led to declining fuel sales. Moreover, the HTF has metastasized into a grab bag for all sorts of non-highway needs, from mass-transit funding to bike lanes and landscaping. Transit consumes almost one-fifth of the trust fund, while accounting for only 1 percent of the nation's surface travel, and more than half of the mass-transit commuting destinations are in just six metropolitan areas: Boston, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The centralized nature of the HTF, with its "inside the Beltway" priorities for how transportation dollars should be spent, creates perverse incentives for state and local leaders. They dump disproportionate amounts into transit projects — because the money is there — while more-demanding roadway needs are neglected.

And those federal dollars come with strings attached, such as the onerous Davis-Bacon provisions that mandate costlier prevailing wages for highway construction. If the states were in charge of highway funding decisions, those eschewing such cumbersome labor laws would get much more bang for their respective bucks.

In 1956, the federally administered "user fee" model made sense: those who utilized the interstate highways were paying for them. Now, innovations such as electric-powered automobiles are immune from the fuel tax but utilize the same roadways as the gas guzzlers. In other words, the current model is unfair. In a June 17, 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Richard Geddes and Brad Wassink wrote that "charging drivers based on the miles they travel would make the system more equitable and efficient. Mileage-based user fees, or MBUFs, reflect the basic principle that motorists who use roads should pay for them, regardless of what fuels the car."

Certainly, a vastly circumscribed HTF can be justified to maintain the completed interstate highway system, a truly national marvel of modern infrastructure that has rivalled the transcontinental railroad in its impact on coast-to-coast (and border-to-border) commercial and logistical efficiency.

But the idea that keeping highway funding at the federal level is somehow a constitutional imperative is, well, a philosophical bridge too far. A coalition of 38 associations and companies, including the American Trucking Associations, has written that "Devolution [of highway funding to the states] represents abandonment by Congress of a most fundamental constitutional obligation to promote interstate commerce." Liberal constitutional interpretation may be the new normal, but like many other extravagant and exaggerated claims in Washington, the signatories miss the point: The federal government's interest in promoting interstate commerce should redound to the most cost-effective method available (i.e., states, localities and private entities more dedicated to cost-containment), not retention of that prerogative in the hands of a centralized bureaucracy known for mismanagement and cost overruns.

Rather than raising the gas tax, Congress should take this opportunity to liberate state, local and private capital to more cost-effectively address highway needs as the states see fit. In the meantime, some commonsense reforms are no-brainers: Limit HTF spending to no more than it takes in, and eliminate non-highway projects from the mix.

Surely, Ike would approve.

Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.