Lawmakers face a looming challenge this summer, as the Highway Trust Fund, the federal mechanism that funds surface transportation projects, is anticipated to run short of cash. Congress soon will begin to debate the re-authorization of surface transportation legislation, which means the opportunity to enact meaningful reforms has never been better.
Congress could begin to address this challenge by cutting spending for non-federal programs and giving states more control over their surface transportation spending.
Current transportation policy is immensely complicated and decidedly Washington-centric. States collect federal gas taxes and send them to Washington, D.C. The federal government pools this money, applies complex formulas to divvy it up, then sends a portion back to each state. These “formula funds” come with myriad caveats. One of them: Set aside 2 percent to pay for the Transportation Alternatives Program.
TAP includes projects such as sidewalks, streetlamps, bicycle paths and beautification—activities that are not inherently low-value, but that should not be federal priorities, either. Every dollar of TAP money that must be set aside means one less dollar the states have to pay for their road and bridge improvement projects. Pennsylvania, for example, must set aside $27.5 million for TAP in fiscal year 2014, meaning it has $27.5 million less to pay for maintenance and repairs to its 5,218 deficient bridges.
TAP illustrates how the federal government intrudes on what should be state-by-state or local decisions. “There is nothing federal or highway about bicycle paths, landscaping or any of these local activities,” Heritage transportation expert Emily Goff writes.
The solution is simple: Eliminate TAP, and return this funding to states to spend on highway and bridge projects of their choosing. Or Washington could not collect the money for TAP in the first place.
The federal government is not equipped to solve local transportation problems, such as traffic congestion or pot holes. And when Washington does get involved, highway dollars get diverted to bicycle paths and street lamps—expenditures that do not benefit the motorists who pay the gas taxes that fill the HTF that funds the surface transportation system.
“The states know their transportation priorities better than Washington does,” Goff says. “Congress should take the cue, start stepping aside in certain areas and let the states assume more control.”