Highway advocates decry ‘dangerous’ calls to scrap gas tax

Highway advocates decry ‘dangerous’ calls to scrap gas tax
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A coalition of 37 transportation advocacy organizations said Monday that Congress should reject proposals from conservative groups to eliminate the federal gas tax, calling the plan “dangerous.” 

Conservative groups have pushed lawmakers to eliminate the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax — used to raise money for transportation projects — to transfer responsibility for the nation’s road and bridges to state governments. 

The advocates said the proposals to eliminate the gas tax, which are referred to as “devolution,” would weaken the nation’s infrastructure. 

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“We also strongly oppose ‘devolution’ proposals such as the “Transportation Empowerment Act” (TEA), previously introduced and considered in the 113th Congress,” the groups wrote. “TEA is an ill-conceived proposal that would strip away most federal funding for surface transportation projects, essentially eliminating the federal government’s constitutionally mandated role in promoting interstate commerce. 

“As previously introduced last Congress, and soundly defeated in the Senate on July 29, 2014, TEA would have reduced funding for the federal-aid highway program by more than 80 percent by 2019, from $45 billion to less than $8 billion, with no consideration of the impact on state and local governments or private industry,” the letter continued. “It also proposed the eradication of the federal transit program, taking more than $8 billion from state and local public transportation agencies, which rely on federal funds for more than 43 percent of their capital spending.” 

The 2014 measure called for lowering 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 have transferred authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants.

Supporters of the devolution proposal attempted to add it to an $11 billion transportation bill that was approved by lawmakers last summer, but it was voted down by a wide margin. 

Opponents of the devolution proposal that wrote to lawmakers on Monday argued that proposal should be permanently shelved because the federal government is best suited to handle transportation infrastructure that runs between states, like highways.

“TEA doesn’t ‘empower’ states; it saddles them with 90 percent of the fiscal responsibility for supporting highways that, under the Constitution, the federal government is obligated to help maintain,” the groups wrote. “It would also have a devastating impact on public transportation systems that help to alleviate highway congestion, reduce emissions and provide critical transportation options to underserved populations.” 

Conservative groups have touted the devolution proposal as a solution to a transportation funding shortfall that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year. The gas tax has been the traditional source of transportation funding since it's inception in the 1930's, but improvements in car fuel efficiency have greatly sapped its purchasing power. 

Making matters worse for the transportation funding picture, the gas tax has not been increased since 1993. The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion annually at its current rate. 

Conservatives have said the shortfall has grown so large that the entire structure of transportation funding should be revisited. 

"The Transportation Empowerment Act would empower states by allowing them to keep and control their gasoline tax revenues, set their infrastructure priorities, control their transportation decisions, and partner with the private sector to meet local needs," Heritage Action wrote in a recent blog post on its website. 

"Currently, American motorists and truckers pay a federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon at the pump; the money is funneled into the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and funneled back to the states via complex congressional formulas, and billions are diverted each year to programs that do not improve congestion," the Heritage Action post continued. "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 letter opposing that perspective was signed by AAA; the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; American Bus Association; American Concrete Pavement Association; Associated General Contractors of America; American Highway Users Alliance; American Moving and Storage Association; American Road and Transportation Builders Association; American Society of Civil Engineers; American Trucking Associations; Associated Equipment Distributors; Association of Equipment Manufacturers; Con-way Inc.; Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute; Corn Refiners Association; FedEx Corporation International; Warehouse Logistics Association; Motorcycle Riders Foundation; National Asphalt Pavement Association; National Association of Manufacturers; National Association of Truck Stop Operators; The National Industrial Transportation League; National Ready Mixed Concrete Association; National Retail Federation National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association; National Tank Truck Carriers; National Utility Contractors Association; Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc.; Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association; SIGMA Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association; Truck Renting and Leasing Association; Truckload Carriers Association; U.S. Chamber of Commerce; United Motorcoach Association; UPS; Volvo Group North America and Werner Enterprises.

-This story was updated with new information at 6:07 p.m.