Tags: Congress | fuel | tax | traffic

Congress Wrecked America’s Road System

Wednesday, 20 Jun 2012 01:11 PM

By Ernest Istook

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Why are our roads so congested?

It’s because of a wreck. By spending fuel tax money on things other than roads, Washington has wrecked the way we pay for highways. With dedicated revenue now drained away, roads are clogged due to wasteful practices by government.

traffic-in-california-2012.jpg
A Treasury Department report finds that Americans are wasting close to 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline each year sitting in traffic.
(Getty Images)
Congested roads hurt our entire economy by slowing people and goods from getting where they need to go.

This creates new forms of road rage. Contractors, state and local governments are angry because new transportation plans were due from Congress over 30 months ago. October of 2009 was the deadline to renew the legislation that governs roads, highways, rail and mass transit. The latest extension (#9) runs out on June 30.

Lawmakers are stalemated. This became inevitable years ago when Congress violated the trust of drivers who pay fuel taxes. What began in 1983 as a trickle of diversion is now a flood. Over a third of gas tax money is siphoned off for the insatiable appetites of those who want free or subsidized travel.

As noted by The Heritage Foundation’s Ron Utt: “only about 65 percent of federal surface transportation spending is used to support general-purpose roads, while the remaining 35 percent is diverted to high-cost, underutilized programs like trolley cars, transit, covered bridges, hiking trails, earmarks, administrative overhead, streetscapes, flower planting, hiking and bicycle paths, museums, ‘transportation enhancements,’ tourist attractions, and archaeology.”

One alternative that’s gathering support is to give fuel tax dollars back to the states so they can allocate the money. States might also politicize how it’s spent, but they can’t do worse than Washington has.

Our once-viable Highway Trust Fund is effectively broke while roads remain crammed, in disrepair, or both. Any talk of raising fuel taxes is beaten down by consumers. Drivers will pay higher prices if they must; but they rebel at higher gasoline taxes because they know the system misuses that money.

With trust funds almost empty, most Senators and Democrats are ready to break the logjam by borrowing billions so they can continue to shove money out the door in the same old manner. But a phalanx of House Republicans stands in the way. They insist on at least partial reforms before a new transportation bill is passed — reforms that won’t fix all the problems but at least will address some of the waste.

Here’s how bad the drainage of the trust fund has gotten:

The U.S. Department of Transportation for years tracked federal subsidies to different forms of travel. Recognizing that different vehicles carry different numbers of people, and for trips of differing lengths, USDOT measured the subsidies per passenger per each 1,000 miles travelled. The results:
  • Highway users paid $1.91 per thousand passenger-miles.
  • “Passenger rail received . . . $186.35 per thousand passenger-miles.
  • “[Mass] transit received $118.26 [per thousand passenger-miles].” 
The abuse became so embarrassing that the Transportation Department quit calculating the subsidies a few years ago. And Amtrak has stopped filing its monthly disclosures of per passenger subsidies on each train route. (They claim it’s caused by a “financial system conversion” that curiously has taken a year so far.)

The diversion of fuel taxes into non-road projects destroyed public confidence and public support for transportation taxes. The move away from the principle of “user pays” began in 1983 with applying some of the fuel tax dollars toward public transit. That trickle has become a flood of projects and non-drivers who ride at the expense of road users. That’s why transit fares are so cheap. Fares paid by transit users typically are less than half of a system’s operating costs and zero of its construction and capital costs.

Transit advocates deceptively claim they reduce congestion by not driving. They never mention that they enjoy subsidized rides even while they take away the money that could have improved the roads and eased the flow of traffic.

The diversion did more than create our backlog of needed highway projects. It also destroyed possible public support for raising fuel taxes — because people know the money would go into a tank that is riddled with holes.

Some of those leaks are the waste: Ever-rising construction costs are worsened by red tape such as environmental regulations, “prevailing wage” laws, union-protecting “project labor agreements” and the like.

When the governing principle of “user pays” is removed, our transportation system stalls and breaks down. Congress is mired in a political dogfight because too many want to receive while somebody else pays. It’s a prime example of what happens if we follow the credo of the Occupy movement.

So when you’re stuck in traffic, remember that somebody has been hurt in a wreck. That somebody is you, the driver who carries the load for everyone else.

Former Congressman Ernest Istook chaired the House subcommittee that handled funding for transportation nationwide. Now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation, he will host the “Istook Live!” daily talk radio show that will soon launch in syndication. Read more reports from Ernest Istook — Click Here Now.


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