Alfonse D’Amato, a long-time former Republican Senator from New York, reveled in his nickname: Senator Pothole. “It means you’re attentive and you’re there and available,” he told New York magazine. Perhaps. But if you discovered a pothole, would you really dial up a U.S. Senator? Yes, there’s a federal Department of Transportation, but patching pavement is a local responsibility.
So, too, are most other transportation projects.
Yet the federal government is all too eager to tell local governments where, what, and how to build. Last year federal lawmakers diverted some $800 million in federal gas taxes from the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to the states “for bicycle and walking paths, sidewalks, community preservation initiatives, and other so-called transportation alternatives,” as Heritage Foundation experts Matthew Grinney and Emily Goff explain in a new report.
These projects don’t benefit the motorists, bus operators, and truckers who pay the gas tax. The HTF is funded primarily with gas and diesel tax money collected by states. Yet states can’t spend it before sending it through the Washington ringer. Grinney and Goff explain:
Washington is loath to give up this role as the middleman, because filtering gas tax dollars through the nation’s capital allows Congress and federal agencies to attach a mix of mandates, regulations, and other restrictions to the HTF allotments—dictating to the state and local governments how they can spend their gas tax funds.
For decades, Congress has steadily centralized decision-making authority in Washington, which has led to inefficient spending on projects that don’t reduce traffic congestion.
But as anyone who’s ever been stuck in traffic understands, transportation is predominantly a local issue. Whether it’s because of breakdowns or bottlenecks, drivers know where the delays usually are. And local lawmakers, not distant federal officials, are in the best position to identify and address those delays.
It is impossible for a centralized, national government to handle the problems of individual citizens. The Founders understood this, and that is why our Constitution created a limited federal government. The national government would deal with foreign foes and allow state and local governments to handle most of the day-to-day problems in American life, such as traffic tie-ups and the best way to enable people to travel from point A to point B.
There are several proposals pending that would move transportation policy closer to its constitutional roots. For example, the Transportation Empowerment Act, introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) and Representative Tom Graves (R–GA), would give local and state governments control of their own transportation spending, freeing them from burdensome federal mandates and spending restrictions.
In the next highway bill, Congress should get on the right road by empowering states and localities to address their own transportation infrastructure priorities.