A committee formed to figure out how to fund Georgia’s transportation needs met for the first time on Tuesday, one of eight meetings it will hold around the state this summer and fall. The guest of honor was former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican who came to town to talk about what Washington and Georgia can do to pay for maintenance and improvements to its road, bridge and transit networks.
In his Thursday AJC column, Political Insider Jim Galloway casts LaHood’s talk as a preacher trying to convince his congregants to fill up the offering plate. Specifically, LaHood believes the federal gas tax should be increased by ten cents per gallon and indexed to rise with inflation.
As you may recall, Congress skedaddled home for its August break after passing a short term measure to fund the federal share of road construction. An increase in the gas tax wasn’t part of that measure. In fact, despite despite wailing about the country’s crumbling roads and bridges, President Obama himself opposes a federal gas tax increase. He would rather pay for it by closing tax loopholes.
While Galloway’s piece is well worth reading (as are Jay Bookman’s take from the left and Kyle Wingfield’s thoughts from the right), there is one point the former transportation secretary made that caught my eye. When recapping LaHood’s remarks on the need to get some Georgia representation on the House Transportation Committee, Galloway writes,
Tea partyers will not do, he suggested. Lately, the one member of the Georgia delegation who has focused specifically on transportation has been U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger. Graves has suggested that federal gas tax revenue simply be shipped back to the states to spend as they wish.
A non-starter, LaHood declared. “If that happened, we wouldn’t have an interstate system. Some states wouldn’t have the money to build them – like in North Dakota, South Dakota. States like that,” he said.
I’ve written about the Transportation Empowerment Act in the past. It would over time reduce the federal gas tax, allow the states to increase their state gas taxes by the same amount, effectively keeping the tax the consumer pays the same, but giving more leeway to the states on how to spend it. And because it wouldn’t be federal money, it wouldn’t be tied to as many federal regulations and hoops the state must go through before using it.
LaHood’s point that Graves’ bill is a non-starter echoes what I heard from House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster when I asked him about it earlier this year. The fear is that if states control the money, there would be an inability to develop projects crossing state lines. Infrastructure in states able to generate less revenue would deteriorate, despite being used by travelers from other states. It’s a valid point, and one that supporters of the TSPLOST made a few years back, to no avail.
With Georgia not likely to get direct control of the money currently raised by the federal gas tax, and support for raising the federal tax being nonexistent, the committee has its work cut out for it. Right now the ‘fourth penny’ of the 4% fuel sales tax goes to the general fund, not transportation. Any credible funding alternative would use that penny to pay for transportation. Fractional SPLOSTs and allowing counties to team up on them will help around the margins.
But ultimately, additional revenue will have to be raised for the Georgia DOT.
Here’s a thought question: What if the Federal gas tax was raised by a dime, then a version of the Transportation Empowerment Act was passed and signed into law by the President that would back that dime out and allow the states to collect that revenue instead. What’s the difference between doing that and just raising Georgia’s gas tax by ten cents and being done with it?