Today’s Courier Herald Column:
9th District Georgia Congressman Tom Graves has penned an editorial for the Atlanta Journal Constitution calling for an end to the 55 year old Federal Highway Trust Fund and the associated federal motor fuels tax. Graves calls the Eisenhower interstate highway system “complete” and that “the central government’s job is done.”
The current federal tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon, and is set to expire. Congress is working on a temporary 6 month extension of the program while a longer term agreement on the future of the project types and related funding levels can be negotiated. Conservatives are beginning to balk at a program that has long been used to sell “jobs” and represented pork brought home to the district. Of particular note to some, such as Graves, is the disparity of funds sent to Washington over the life of the program versus funds returned to Georgia.
Graves cites a net deficit of funds paid versus projects funded from 2005 to 2009 of $839 Million, or $.89 returned for every dollar collected. Graves further claims Georgia has received only $.848 cents on the dollar since the program’s inception, calling that return “highway robbery”.
Said Graves, “I believe the federal government has mishandled our gas-tax revenues and mistreated states such as Georgia, and it’s not hard to understand why. A big pile of money in Washington is like flypaper for political agendas, lobbyists, special interests and earmarks. The Highway Trust Fund is no exception, and it’s being drained for projects that have absolutely nothing to do with highways.”
The diversion of funds away from highways and into other projects also has the ire of Graves and other Conservatives. Graves takes aim at what he believes to be social engineering through livability initiatives, which fund to programs such as bike paths, sidewalks, scenic byways, and decorative flower arrangement for medians. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn has vowed to use “all procedural tools at his disposal” to block the continued funding of highway beautification and bike path construction in any extension of the highway program.
The most expensive diversion of highway funds also sets Graves at odds with Georgia Senate Transportation Committee Chair Jeff Mullis, once considered a rival for Graves’ congressional seat. Mullis is perhaps the state’s largest proponent of high speed rail, seeking to build a line from Chattanooga to Atlanta. Graves lumps the rail programs high speed and commuter transit projects alike, into a group with bridges to nowhere. This hardly represents an endorsement of high speed rail through his district. He notes that the Heritage Foundation now says that fully 38% of highway funds are used for non-highway projects like those mentioned above.
Graves suggests an alternative approach in Senate Bill 1164, known as the Transportation Empowerment Act. It allows for a five year transition to allow projects already begun with commitment of federal funds to be completed, but winds down the federal gas tax to 3.7 cents per gallon. These funds would then be used only for programs which have a “national purpose”, the definition of which will surely fuel great congressional debate. The remaining highway funding responsibility “is one issue that can and should be handed back to the states” according to Graves.
The maneuverings by congressional Republicans come at a somewhat awkward time for politicians back home in Georgia. The state is already set to attempt to pass 10 regional sales tax initiatives for additional road and transit funding. Many of the projects on the T-SPLOST lists are tied to the potential of federal matching funds.
Though Graves clearly envisions the state replacing most if not all of the federal fuel tax at the state level, it is hard to imagine state legislators looking forward to a vote to replace the tax, knowing any potential opponent could flood their district with direct mail citing their vote for the “largest tax increase in Georgia’s history.”
The awkwardness is compounded by the fact that the Georgia Department of Transportation is currently looking for its forth leader in four years after last week’s resignation of Commissioner Vance Smith. GDOT is the primary component in setting highway funding and construction priorities in the state, yet many of the top jobs had gone unfilled under Smith prior to his resignation. Virtually the entire leadership team must now be filled, leaving multiple questions unable to be answered during this crucial time for setting the state’s transportation vision for the future.
While the timing is less than convenient, long term budget priorities of the federal government should all be under review, and Graves taking an active role in a debate which all U.S. Citizens should be having. What is the proper role of the Federal Government, and how much of what is currently being done by the Fed can and should be done by the states? Graves has framed the question for highway funding. It will now be interesting to see the reaction from state leaders who love to use Washington as a whipping post, all the while taking federal matching funds to promote their asphalt version of economic development.