Why does House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s (R–WI) budget proposal matter to you? Because it would empower citizens and state and local governments, not remote Washington bureaucrats, to solve the transportation problems—think traffic congestion—that they deal with daily.
A crucial reform proposal in the budget involves how transportation projects are funded and are prioritized—and who makes those decisions. Ryan’s budget calls for “giving states more flexibility to fund the highway projects they feel are most critical,” not empowering Washington. This reform could take the form of a pilot program in which states could “fund their transportation priorities with state revenues, opt out of the federal gas tax, and forgo federal allocations,” as the budget says.
Currently, motorists, bus operators, and truckers in all 50 states pay an 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax at the pump. That money (along with diesel taxes and related taxes) is sent to Washington, only for it to be sent back to the states with restrictions and mandates. The result: Congress diverts gas tax money to activities that are local, not federal, in nature and do not benefit motorists, such as urban mass transit, bicycle and walking paths, trolley cars, and “streetscaping.”
These projects do not necessarily lack value, but they are not federal responsibilities and should not be federally funded. Such diversions are particularly egregious because they come at the expense of highway and bridge improvement projects that would benefit motorists by reducing traffic congestion and enhancing their mobility.
Lawmakers, including Ryan, have recently called for a change from the status quo. Representative Tom Graves (R–GA) and Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) introduced companion legislation, the Transportation Empowerment Act, which would incrementally lower the federal taxes on fuels to more modest levels, simultaneously refocusing the scope of the federal highway program to encompass national—not local—activities.
Representative Scott Garrett (R–NJ) introduced the Surface Transportation and Taxation Equity Act, which would allow states to opt out of the federal gas tax and its mandates, instead spending the gas taxes they collect on projects of their choosing.
These proposals would bring many transportation funding and spending decisions closer to home—to the people affected by them. As a result, states and localities would be able to fund projects that are critical to them. Free from onerous federal red tape, states’ transportation dollars would go further.
Reduced traffic congestion, increased mobility, and less time in traffic—these are the benefits that could come if Congress and the Administration decentralized the current approach to transportation and freed the states and localities to more efficiently solve their transportation problems.