Georgia View: The Road Less Traveled

When President Dwight Eisenhower championed the formation of the U.S. interstate system and Congress authorized the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the primary purpose was for national defense mobilization and to better protect America from attacks within our borders.

Eisenhower took a page from enemy playbooks. While serving as the allied commander in Europe during World War II, he witnessed German troops tactically using the Autobahn, which long pre-dated our interstates.

Our interstate system includes 46,876 miles of road (second only to China’s), and about one quarter of all vehicle miles driven in the U.S. take place on interstates. In 2006 dollars, the cost of construction to date totals an estimated $425 billion.

The U.S. Highway Trust Fund, which exists to fund maintenance, repairs and future federal interstate construction, is projected to reach a state of insolvency this month. Only a series of budget shell games and accounting tricks have forestalled the death of this anachronistic funding mechanism, which currently collects an excise tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline nationwide, an amount unchanged since 1993.

Motor fuel taxes are collected at the state level, sent to Washington, then redistributed via  a funding formula that rewards population more than infrastructure usage, aging or congestion concerns.

Georgia has for decades been receiving roughly two-thirds of its interstate construction and maintenance dollars from D.C., an amount that is expected to decrease by a full third in 2015. Additionally, Georgia (and other states) must first incur construction expenses, complete work or pay bills, and then submit for reimbursement. Of course, there are clearly costs incurred for collection, as well as in redistribution. 

Georgia’s congressional delegation is uniquely poised to set a new direction for interstate funding and maintenance, beginning with the end of the U.S. Highway Trust Fund. One suggestion: States should still collect the federal excise tax, with those revenues tied expressly to funding transportation infrastructure and projects. Most simply put, just let all states keep the funds that they already collect.

This would be a user fee funded component of transportation allocation. Commuters, truckers, tourists and others using these same roadways would pay into the construction/maintenance funding via their purchases of motor fuel. Similar to the much-discussed FairTax, this is a purely consumption-based tax paid by those purchasing gasoline, diesel, jet or other motor fuels.

Leaving these funds with the states will give each more direct control of billions in revenue for transportation needs and will end the inadequacies of redistribution and eliminate any costs incurred in layered administration. So whether or not I-75 gains a reversible lane or the Holcomb Bridge Road exit on Georgia 400 is re-designed become purely state-driven decisions.

Congressman Tom Price (R-District 6) chairs the House Budget Committee. He’s joined by Congressman Rob Woodall (R-District 7), who also serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Woodall co-authored the FairTax bill, which proposes shifting the current federal income tax to a 23 percent consumption tax on all goods and services.

The dean of Georgia’s House delegation is Congressman John Lewis (D-District 5). Lewis, who is senior chief deputy whip for the 114th Congress, is highly respected by his fellow members in the Congressional Black Caucus, has a close relationship with the Obama White House and holds significant influence among other House members who represent large cities across the U.S.

Two-lane interstates once intended and originally built to aid the transport of tanks and troop deployments now much more commonly serve workday commuters, soccer moms, tourists, truckers and their related commerce. With the possible exception of interstate commerce, as it relates to road maintenance standards, most all of these other uses are regional or local in origin and nature.

Lewis, Price, Woodall and others in the Georgia delegation could very logically take the lead on this issue. The GOP Congressional leadership is promising a smaller federal government and movement toward a balanced budget. To get there, they have to start with something big. Keeping what we already collect on the federal level may provide us a bridge to get across the road less traveled.

Categories: Georgia View