Jul 29 2014
We are here today because our federal highway policy status quo is not working. And it hasn’t been for a long time.
This is the sixth time American taxpayers have been asked to bail out the Highway Trust Fund since 2008. None of those patches – $52 billion worth of bailouts in seven years – fixed the problem. And neither will the $10.8 billion authorized by the bill before us today. It will buy us only a few months before we are right back where we are now.
Indeed, this debate is the dysfunction of Washington in miniature.
Here - as in health care, higher education, assistance for the poor, energy, and so many other areas – the federal government has created a permanent, structural problem and responds with duct-tape.
Worse, this bill only solves Washington’s problems – not the American people’s. Under the broken status quo this bill protects and extends, in six months – and in six years - our roads will still be congested.
Too many single moms will still live on a knife’s edge trying to make it to their second jobs across town. Too many dads will still have to leave for work before breakfast and get home after dinner. Children will still look in vain into the empty seats at their piano recitals and Little League games. Commuters will still squeeze into over-crowded subway cars, hold their breath and hope it doesn’t break down... again.
Young families will still be unfairly priced out of neighborhoods near the best jobs and schools. And diverse communities will still be subject to the monotonous inefficiency of an outmoded bureaucracy.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a better way.
The Interstate Highway System is one of the great achievements not only in the history of the federal government, but in all of American history. It unified a sprawling, continental nation by investing in our common destiny. It simultaneously met the economic, social, cultural, and security needs of an emerging superpower. It was and remains a wonder of American innovation and self-government.
More than that, the Interstate Highway System was the daring, audacious work of a young nation, literally on the move, bristling with confidence in its future and its people. With the “Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956,” Congress threw off the yoke of the status quo and met the needs of a new generation.
Yet today, 58 years later, in a new century with new needs and new technologies and a new economy, Congress anxiously clings to that exact same policy like a tattered security blanket.
Six decades ago, federal highway policy represented a triumph of imagination. Today, our refusal to modernize that policy represents a failure of imagination.
So we’re here with the duct-tape and WD-40 trying to keep this 20th century bureaucracy in place rather than embracing the worthy challenge of building a new mobility policy for the 21st century.
That’s exactly what my amendment – the “Transportation Empowerment Act” – would do.
In 1956, it made sense for the federal government to collect the majority of gas taxes from around the country and then coordinate the construction of a national system. We needed it.
But with the interstate system now largely complete, and most transportation issues today existing at a local level, there is no longer the same need for Washington as a central coordinator. We’ve become an intrusive middle-man.
We need to refocus the federal government solely on interstate priorities and to empower a diverse, flexible, open-source transportation network controlled by the states.
My amendment will empower states and communities to customize their own infrastructure according to their own needs, values, and imagination. It would, over five years, gradually transfer both funding and spending authority over local surface transportation to the states.
Today, the federal gas tax stands at 18.4 cents per gallon. My amendment would lower it, by 2019, to 3.7 cents. In the interim, we would gradually send states more of their allotment without strings, to prepare them for the eventual transfer.
After this gradual transition, Congress would retain enough revenue to continue to maintain the interstate system, which rightly remains a federal priority and core competence. But states and communities would be newly empowered to launch a new era of local investment and innovation.
The idea behind this plan is that not only is there a better way to improve America’s infrastructure, there are fifty better ways - even thousands of better ways. In our increasingly decentralized world, there are as many ideal transportation policies as there are communities across the country.
Washington is standing in the way – imposing obsolete conformity on a vibrant, diverse society. For if we truly love local transportation infrastructure – and who doesn’t? - we should set it free.
Under the Transportation Empowerment Act, Americans could finally enjoy the local infrastructure they want. More environmentally conscious states and towns could finally have the flexibility to invest in more green transit projects and bike lanes. Regions reaping the benefits of America’s energy renaissance could accelerate their infrastructure build-outs to keep up with their explosive growth. Dense cities could invest in more sustainable public transit networks.
Meanwhile, surrounding counties could re-open the frontiers of the suburbs to a new generation of more livable communities. State and local governments will also be freed to experiment with innovative funding mechanisms not tied to the unreliable gas tax. And by cutting out the Washington middle-men, all those states and communities and taxpayers will be able to get more for less.
My amendment would not reduce America’s investment in infrastructure, any more than Uber reduces America’s investment in car service. In the real world, value is not a cost.
Rather, my plan would empower a nation hungry for greater mobility to spend their infrastructure dollars on steel and concrete instead of on bureaucracy and special interests.
Now, some of my colleagues oppose this plan.
Some will offer Washington’s eternal promise: the status quo will work… it just needs more money. The federal gas tax has not changed since 1994, they will say. We are starving the trust fund.
But it’s not true. For in the 12 years prior to 1994, the gas tax skyrocketed 460%, from 4 cents to 18.4 cents-per-gallon. Put another way, since 1982, the federal gas tax has grown by an equivalent of 6.1% per year. Chasing ever-more money will not solve this problem. That’s what we have been doing, and the bill before us today is incontrovertible proof it hasn’t worked.
Others argue that reducing Washington’s role in local transportation would invite economic and infrastructural catastrophe. This makes two peculiar assumptions.
First, it assumes that Washington is uniquely competent in the area of local transportation - even as a long train of abusive boondoggles and Bridges to Nowhere tell us otherwise.
Even more bizarrely, this argument assumes that the fifty states of our exceptional republic, many of which would rank among the wealthiest nations in the world on their own, are unstable banana republics, nursing the development of primitive, hunter-gatherer societies whose only transportation services involve the clearing of woodland paths for their pig-drawn carts.
State and local governments already pay for 75% of all surface transportation infrastructure projects in this country.
In my home state of Utah, one of the best-run in the country, only 20% of our transportation money comes from Washington—the other 80% we raise ourselves. Of course, we raise most of that 20%, too. It’s just that under the broken status quo, Washington middle men take their cut before sending it back to us.
Why not just leave that extra 25% in the states and communities who need and use it in the first place? The states already own and maintain the highways. And local transit projects are... inherently local.
So why not let the federal government focus on interstates? And let Oregonians plan, finance, and build their bike paths and San Franciscans their green-energy transit experiments and Texans their eight-lane express-ways in their own way, tailored to their own needs and values.
All we add to the process here in Washington is unnecessary overhead and self-congratulating press releases trying to take credit for it all.
Finally, many who admit that the status quo is unsustainable nonetheless support it because they believe their particular state benefits by receiving more money back from the highway trust fund than it puts in.
Washington perpetuates the myth that transportation money is “free,” especially for these so-called net “donee” states. But as in every other middle-man arrangement, the status quo policy ensures states actually get less value back than they should.
Federal regulatory strings not only make infrastructure projects unnecessarily expensive. They specifically divert resources away from actual infrastructure, and waste it on special interests and bureaucratic red tape.
The federal Davis-Bacon Act, for instance, costs states an additional 10 cents for every dollar they spend on infrastructure construction projects. Numerous regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) collectively cost state governments an additional nine cents on the dollar. No wonder the Trust Fund needs to be bailed our every year. Washington is charging taxpayers a 20% processing fee right off the top.
I encourage all my colleagues to work out the math for their own states. But for Utah, that means that of the $335 million we receive annually from the Highway Trust Fund, nearly $64 million goes to political overhead instead of steel and concrete.
Everything in our economy and our society today is moving away from rigid, centralized bureaucratic control and toward flexible, open-sourced, community- and individual-empowerment.
The Interstate Highway System met a crucial need in its time, and represented a wonder of innovation. But so did Borders bookstores at one time. So did Blockbuster. So did record stores. So did rotary phones.
Americans still need books and movies and music and communication – and they still get them. Today, those goods are just delivered more efficiently, more affordably, through flexible models customized to the unique needs of individual consumers.
In the same way, Americans still need highways and bridges and subways and bike paths. Indeed, we need them now more than ever. But federal policy hasn’t kept up with the times.
That’s why, even without my amendment, more than 30 states have begun or are considering their own transportation modernization programs. This is just more evidence that the transportation renaissance America needs is one that our centralized bureaucratic status quo cannot deliver – not with another $10.8 billion, or ten times as much.
After six decades - and historic successes - the time has come for a new federal transportation policy that taps the creativity of our diverse nation.
Today Americans are unnecessarily stuck in traffic, stuffed in overcrowded subway cars, missing their kids’ games and recitals, priced out of neighborhoods close to their jobs and spend almost a full 40-hour work week per year stuck in gridlock.
They deserve better than what Washington is offering, which is just the status quo plus a little more money. A new era demands a new approach.
The Interstate Highway System is a success, and the people who created it deserve our admiration. But the way to honor their legacy is to stop imitating them and start emulating them, by investing in an innovative transportation network for our own era just as they did for theirs. Just as it was in 1956, the status quo is once again no longer good enough. We need to transcend it.
The future of American mobility is not a rigid, monolithic, centralized bureaucracy – frozen in amber. It’s a flexible, organic, open-source network of empowered individuals and communities – as diverse as the nation itself.
My amendment would empower Americans to start to build that future together, and I ask all my colleagues to support it.