First Published Jul 24 2015 10:09AM • Last Updated Jul 24 2015 10:09 am
Utahns deserve a reliable and efficient transportation system that delivers top-notch infrastructure at the most affordable price. And our state's transportation projects rank among the nation's best planned and most efficiently built.
Unfortunately, the federal highway bill the United States Senate is voting on this week only perpetuates the worst aspects of Washington's broken system.
We're taking up this flawed bill because the Highway Trust Fund — the funding instrument for Washington's transportation projects — is scheduled, once again, to run out of money at the end of July. And, once again, instead of implementing permanent structural reforms of the program, Congress is trying to "find the money" to paper over the holes in a system that basic math tells us is unsustainable.
Thus the bill before the Senate purports to provide six years of highway spending authorization, but includes enough money for only three years of spending. And those three years are funded by one-time accounting gimmicks — like selling off $9 billion worth of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — that will leave Americans in the same place in 2018.
Any observer of Washington knows, regrettably, how Congress tends to operate today — propping up the policies of the past, rather than creating new policies for the future, and using manufactured fiscal crises to postpone difficult, but unavoidable, decisions. And any member of the transportation community knows well how damaging this pattern of legislative and fiscal procrastination can be.
The Washington ritual of "kicking the can down the road" on transportation policy may be a periodic nuisance for federal policymakers, but it is a constant burden for state legislators. And it can be an existential threat to those working in one of the industries involved in the construction and maintenance of our nation's highways, roads, bridges and transit systems.
This is because under the status quo, the fate of states' transportation budgets depends on an unreliable and unstable federal revenue stream. The result is pervasive uncertainty and instability within our federal highway system.
Here's how the system works today. Federal funds — made up primarily of federal gas tax revenue — cover an average of 25 percent of states' expenditures on surface transportation projects. But because these projects can take as long as 10 to 15 years to complete, the federal government distributes its funds as reimbursements to the state governments only after the work is completed.
When federal reimbursements are as unpredictable as they have been over the past decade, this process breaks down and leaves state budget planners in a dilemma. They can either cancel future projects, which leaves transportation needs unmet and handicaps the state's economic development. Or they could implement their state's construction plans and find other sources of revenue to cover gaps in federal funding, which strains state budgets and deprives communities of critical resources necessary to pay for essential public services.
In pursuit of a way to restore stability and certainty to the system, many are looking to the past successes of our federal highway program. And not without reason.
The federal highway program that President Eisenhower created in the 1950s spurred one of America's greatest domestic achievements of the 20th century: the construction of a sprawling Interstate highway system without which the country could not have become the economic and military force that we are today.
The source of the federal highway program's success — and the Highway Trust Fund's stability — was the national consensus that America needed an Interstate highway system. But since the early 1980s, when the Interstate system neared completion, this consensus has slowly been eroding as the country's transportation needs shifted from national to local in scope.
This is the premise of a bill I recently introduced in the Senate, the Transportation Empowerment Act, which would gradually lower the federal gas tax and reduce the federal highway program — focusing it on purely interstate projects — so states can implement more of their own infrastructure priorities.
This would allow Utahns to keep more of their transportation dollars, and it would enable those dollars to go even further, as state policymakers could pursue projects that balance traffic mitigation and environmental protection according to local needs and concerns, instead of wasting resources complying with costly labor regulations and spending requirements attached to federal money.
More stability. Lower costs. Better infrastructure. That is what the Transportation Empowerment Act would deliver for Utah, and that is why I will vote against perpetuating the current broken system.
Mike Lee, a Republican, is the junior senator from Utah.
Originally published via Salt Lake Tribune