The Road to Transportation Federalism

Time and time again, our lawmakers need to be reminded of the principle of federalism. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Though the power of our federal government is growing to massive new heights, the founders intended the powers of the federal government to be quite small.

Powers which were not included in the federal Constitution were intended to be taken up by the states (or individuals) because they know how to manage local needs better. This principle of federalism gives states greater flexibility and enables citizens to move to areas which best match their values. One area where federalism has been attacked for over half of a century is transportation.

The Highway Trust Fund may dry up by September 30th. This raises a question that should have been debated long ago: what role does the federal government have in transportation?

Created in 1956, the Highway Trust Fund was to be made up of revenue from a federal gasoline tax to pay for national road-building and mass transit. This trust fund was originally intended to temporarily fund construction for the interstate highway system. Now that the interstate highways are completed, the gas tax has funded numerous road projects within state borders and it has increased numerous times.
As the trust fund is now running out of cash, Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy have proposed an increase in the gas tax, first by 12 cents and then going up annually based on inflation. They claim that they are not raising taxes because the plan also includes a series of “tax extenders.” However, these extenders are already renewed annually and are likely to be this year as well. Their proposal has been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and various unions.

Others, including Republican Representative Shuster, foolishly want a vehicle miles tax. This idea would require cars to contain trackers to collect the tax. Even still, some Republicans are requesting an end to Saturday postal deliveries to save money. This would not end the insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund nor the debt at the Post Office. It would also be political suicide. These proposals just kick the can down the road, and continue to assert that the federal government should have control over transportation without question.

In reality, the entire system is flawed. By managing roads, the federal government acts as an unnecessary middleman. It takes tax dollars from individuals, organizes them into one fund, and distributes it among states that fight over how much money each should get. Some states pay a lot into the system but get very little in the end. When the money is distributed, the federal government asserts its own rules based on its own vision for how the money should be spent. Federal management of road-building is also expensive. High Davis-Bacon wages are required for construction workers which raises the cost of the construction projects by 22%.

Senator Mike Lee and Representative Tom Graves have wisely suggested that the solution is to phase out federal control over transportation. They have proposed a bill (S. 1702 in the Senate and H.R. 3486 in the House) which would significantly cut the gas tax and devolve transportation management to the states, leaving only a minimal federal stake in transportation. States would be able to raise their own gas taxes and pay for roads based on their own needs without federal authorities breathing down their necks.

Senator Lee said of his plan that, “’All states and localities should finally have the flexibility to develop the kind of transportation system they want, for less money, without politicians and special interests from other parts of the country telling them how, when, what and where they should build.”

Senator Lee is right. If the government is going to manage roads, then states and localities should be trusted to do it. There would be less abuse, greater flexibility, and lower costs. It does not make sense to give money to Washington to have only a fraction of it thrown back at us. Federalism should be restored to transportation.