The incoming Congress will need to act fairly quickly on the federal Highway Trust Fund, which will run out of money sometime before the first of June. In theory, the Highway Trust Fund gets its money from the revenue generated by the federal gasoline tax, currently at 18.4 cents per gallon. In reality, though, more fuel efficient vehicles, the move to electric cars, and a tax unindexed to inflation has left insufficient revenues for the fund.
Washington’s response has been to top off the balance from the general fund, or more properly, by expanding the national debt. Georgia DOT officials estimate that for each dollar Georgians pay into the fund, they get $1.14 back.
How to fix the problem? Senator John Thune, who will lead that body’s transportation committee, is at least open to the possibility of raising the federal gas tax. In a Rome News Tribune story published on Sunday, 14th District Congressman Tom Graves said he has a better idea.
Graves wants that discussion to include his Transportation Empowerment Act — a proposal the congressman says would remove the federal government as a middleman and return transportation money back to the states that’s currently funneled through Washington, D.C.
Barry Loudermilk, who will be sworn in on Tuesday to represent the 11th District thinks the Highway Trust Fund has suffered from mission creep, noting its original purpose of funding roads and bridges.
“Over the years, though, we’ve broadened that to bike trails and green spaces,” Loudermilk said. “I love riding my bicycle, but bike paths don’t reduce congestion on I-75 south of Atlanta.”
Additionally, federal money comes with requirements such as studies and tests. Loudermilk said transportation dollars would go farther if the federal government reduces those regulations.
We’ve talked about the Transportation Empowerment Act before. It would provide for a gradual reduction in the federal gas tax that would be met with a matching increase in state gas taxes, staying revenue neutral. Its supporters argue that not only would this approach be more faithful to the concept of federalism, but it would save the states money by removing mandates that accompany the federal funds. Georgia could have had an additional $185 million to spend on roads in 2013, according to information cited by the AJC’s Kyle Wingfield.
It all sounds like a good idea on the surface. But, because Congress is using debt to supplement the trust fund, reducing the federal tax rate by the same amount it would be increased by the states would leave a shortfall.
The other question, and one that federal officials, including former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair Bill Shuster have brought up, is a need to ensure a reliable transportation network across state lines. Here’s something to think about:
South Dakota’s 2014 population is estimated to be 853,175 people, roughly comparable to the 2014 population of Georgia’s Gwinnett County. Yet, South Dakota has 7,737 miles of state-owned highways, including 679 miles of Interstate highways, that the Highway Trust Fund would be expected to be used to pay for maintenance and construction. Gwinnett County, on the other hand, has “over 2750” miles of roads, according to the Gwinnett DOT website. Those roads include residential streets and county roads that wouldn’t have maintenance and construction paid for by federal funds.
If Graves’ Transportation Empowerment Act were to be passed, and assuming Gwinnettians pay roughly the same amount of gas tax as South Dakotans, they would each have the same amount of revenue to pay for vastly different road networks. Presently, the Highway Trust Fund is distributed in a way that largely evens this out. And that’s why Graves’ Transportation Empowerment Act may never be enacted.