As Georgia’s legislators consider how to fund the construction, maintenance and repair of the state’s roads and bridges, a similar conversation is going on in Washington, DC, as Congress tries to determine how to keep the nation’s highway trust fund solvent. The issue is not new. Originally set up as a way to fund the nation’s interstate highway system, the Highway Trust Fund is nominally funded by an 18.3 cent excise tax per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents excise tax on diesel fuel.
And just as in the Peach State, revenues from the excise tax have been declining due to increased fuel efficiency in the nation’s automobile fleet, and growing usage of electric vehicles. The shortfall has been made up in recent years through contributions from general government revenues, but that requires repeated off-budget appropriations by Congress. Money allocated from the last round of appropriations is running out, and the fund is expected to run dry by the end of May, 2015.
While some in the Senate have talked about raising the federal gasoline excise tax, others, including President Obama, have taken a raise in the gas tax off the table. Meanwhile state transportation departments are concerned that a short term fix to make the highway trust fund solvent will leave them unable to execute some projects requiring long lead or construction times, since there is no guarantee the federal money will be there when needed.
One of the people who will have a voice in how the imbroglio around the Highway Trust Fund is resolved in Georgia’s Seventh District Congressman Rob Woodall, who was named to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this year. The AJC’s Daniel Malloy caught up with Woodall in a weekend interview to discuss the issue. In it, Woodall took an increase in the gas tax off the table.
“No, we actually don’t need to raise the gas tax,” Woodall said. “We have plenty of money coming in. What we have to do is reorient the responsibilities that we have.”
Woodall is a fan of reducing the amount of money spent on Amtrak, especially the longer “tourist trains” that cost more to operate than they collect in fares. He also supports the Transportation Empowerment Act proposed by fellow Georgia Congressman Tom Graves. This “devolution” would give more power to the states to spend with fewer federal restrictions. Whatever happens, any solution to solve the issues of the Highway Trust Fund shouldn’t be expected to provide a bailout for Georgia’s transportation needs.
Governor Deal’s proposed 2016 budget allocates $876 million of state money and $1.7 billion in federal money to transportation. That’s two thirds of the money being spent on transportation expected to be paid for by federal dollars. Contrast that with our neighboring state of Florida, which uses state money to pay for around 75% of its road construction and maintenance. Florida’s use of state money, especially for new projects, means that many federal permits and mandates can be bypassed.
The key concept behind Graves’ Transportation Empowerment Act was that the states would assume more responsibility for funding their own transportation needs, which would result in more flexibility and savings in how the money was being spent. In a sense, the declining revenue from the federal gas tax and reduced purchasing power of the Highway Trust Fund is already accomplishing some of that goal, and is a reason the gas tax should not be raised at the federal level.
And while it makes sense for Woodall and his committee to make the most efficient use of the Highway Trust Fund, it’s also incumbent on the states, including Georgia, to make up for the reduced federal revenue bu funding more of their own transportation needs.