The solution to America’s crumbling highways: Spend less

The irresponsible and unaccountable bureaucracy that controls highway spending has left America with only one viable option: Let the states control gas-tax revenue.

In this undated photo released Wednesday, June 11, 2014, by the National Transportation Safety Board, the Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge, which collapsed May 23, 2013, is shown. The photo was one of more than 2,000 pages of documents, including interviews, cell phone logs, and incident reports that are a part of the ongoing investigation into what caused the bridge to collapse. (AP Photo/National Transportation Safety Board)

WASHINGTON, June 24, 2015 — On December 10, 1940, the first freeway in the western United States was finally completed in Pasadena, Calif., after a decade of planning and construction.

The Arroyo Seco Parkway, an eight-mile highway connecting downtown Los Angeles with its northern suburbs, was considered an engineering marvel at the time.  The success and practicality of this new mode of transportation served as a catalyst for President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which signaled the creation of the nationwide interstate freeway grid that keeps the country moving 60 years later.

In 2015, the romantic ideals initially associated with the new age of travel birthed in the 1950s have completely evaporated.  The interstate highway system is a mess; those in Washington who were entrusted with protecting it fell asleep at the wheel.

In the beginning, a national gas tax was established with the goal of paying for new roads and improvements to the nation’s transportation infrastructure.  The states collect roughly 18 cents of every gallon of gas pumped in this country and send the money to Washington.  That plan was sufficient enough to maintain the highway system until lawmakers began to create loopholes and money pools in order to avoid spending the gas-tax revenue on what they were supposed to.

For example, the federal government now allocates 2 percent of the freeway tax fund to pay for the Transportation Alternatives Program, or TAP.  This program uses the money to build and repair sidewalks, hiking trails and non-essential roadways.  That may be a noble enterprise, but every dollar spent on street lamps is a dollar not being spent on its intended purpose of fixing the highways.

In Virginia, almost $200,000 worth of gas-tax revenue was funneled to a project to renovate the Cape Henry lighthouse—a far cry from building a new highway.  The mismanagement that has taken place regarding the gas tax is astonishing.  The Center for American Progress reports that 50 percent of roads built using the gas tax don’t generate the necessary revenue to break even from the expenses incurred to build them.  In other words, one out of every two roads built using the gas tax loses money.

Maneuvers to reallocate gas-tax money toward things other than highways have contributed to the failure of the current gas-tax system, which now loses 25 percent of its revenue each year to paying for projects it was not originally intended to support.  It thus comes as no surprise that the federal gas tax cannot keep up with today’s necessary infrastructure spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The current shortfall stands at $16 billion; that number is expected to grow to $168 billion over the next decade if nothing is done to solidify the program.

The federal gas tax takes in roughly $40 billion per year, which should be more than enough to cover road improvements, but the issue isn’t the money, but how that money is spent.  Everywhere you look, Eisenhower’s concrete masterpiece is crumbling.  The roads and highways are practically disintegrating in front of our eyes.

Congress has ignored the problem for years, and in typical fashion the only solutions they have brought to the table are raising the gas tax despite its complete lack of structural integrity.  The truth is that the gas tax simply isn’t being spent on our nation’s freeways but instead is being doled out to congressional pet projects and unrelated endeavors.

The irresponsible and unaccountable bureaucracy that controls highway spending in this country has left American citizens with only one viable option.  Let the states determine what to do with the gas-tax revenue.

Rather than blindly increasing the level of taxing and spending to accomplish a goal, a move that never works when the government tries it, conservatives in Washington have proposed to solve the problem by moving the other way.

Washington Republicans have come up with a plan to gradually eliminate the federal gas tax by lowering it by 3.7 cents in five years.  Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is the main sponsor of the Transportation Empowerment Act, or TEA, which intends not only to lower the gas tax but also to shift authority on transportation projects to the states, which undoubtedly have a better understanding of the needs of their citizens.

Lee points out that federal mismanagement is not the only issue that is contributing to the ineffectiveness of the gas tax.  He explains, “The Interstate Highway System was completed decades ago, drivers are buying less gas and the federal government has wasted far too much money on non-highway projects. It is just an outdated system that is long overdue for reform.”

Lee brings up the point that the invention of hybrid cars and other fuel-efficient models has surely had a significant effect on the amount of gas Americans purchase each year.   This trend is likely to grow, so simply raising the gas tax year after year isn’t going to solve the budget shortfall.

Several highly regarded economists agree with Lee.  That list includes the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore, who wrote the following in the Washington Times: “Rather than raise the federal gas tax, a better policy would be to repeal the federal tax and let states pay for their own road projects.  The interstate highway system was completed 30 years ago, and there is no more need for a national tax at 18.4 cents a gallon to fund bridges and high-speed rail projects to nowhere.  Devolving transportation projects back to the states will ensure that gas tax money is used for the highest value-added projects.”

There appears to be a very strong understanding among both politicians and citizens that the gas tax is not serving the purpose it was originally designed to.  If the roads, bridges and highways could be efficiently maintained by the federal government, they would have figured out a way over the last 50 years.  That didn’t happen, so it only makes sense to look toward other suggestions.  Maybe it’s time to let states do what states do best, make decisions based on the specific needs of the local population.

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