Bill would gut federal highway program, let states fend for themselves

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | 7/25/2014

A bill being considered in Congress would, if enacted, strip the highway and bridge program from the Department of Transportation and let states call the shots.

The Transportation Empowerment Act, sponsored in the Senate by Mike Lee, R-Utah, and in the House of Representatives by Tom Graves, R-Ga., would draw down the federal tax on diesel fuel from the current 24.3 cents a gallon to just 5 cents over a five-year period. The gasoline tax would drop from 18.3 cents to just under 4 cents. The theory offered by the lawmakers is to give states more control of highways, even the interstates, in a process known as devolution.

Lee offered his bill as a stand-alone a few months ago, but the Senate moved this week to agree to vote on it as an amendment to a Highway Trust Fund bill expected in the coming days. Opponents question the appetite for a devolution bill at a time when lawmakers are deciding how to strengthen the federal program.

Even if states were given more incentive to increase their individual fuel-tax rates to keep transportation moving, there’s no guarantee they would actually do that, says Ryan Bowley, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. There’s also no guarantee that state transportation money would stay with transportation.

Texas and other states use up to 25 percent of their transportation tax revenue to fund education and other programs according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.

“Instead of fighting one battle to make sure federal fuel taxes stay with highways and bridges, you would have to fight 50 battles,” Bowley said.

“With federal involvement, there is an assurance of basic levels of investment,” he said.

“At a time the U.S. DOT and Congress are looking at ways to ensure that more investment is made in freight, devolution and turning control of highways back to the states puts that effort at serious risk. Things like truck parking – you would lose any sort of federal focus or leadership in that area at a time we’re looking at opportunities to grow attention to the issues. Devolution makes that much more difficult.”

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