- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The first stretch of asphalt in the Interstate Highway System was laid in 1956, paving the way for the vast network of highways and byways that have become a critical part of American life and culture. Every day in our nation, Americans stay connected and commerce flows directly from north to south and coast to coast because of this highway system. Few undertakings in our nation’s history have matched the scale of the Interstate System or the significant national interest it has served.

More than 50 years have passed since former President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation to create the Interstate System, and construction on the final span of national highway was finished nearly 20 years ago. Yet highway users in all 50 states are still paying into the national highway system through a formula designed around the now-obsolete purpose of completing the Interstate System.

This funding formula is no longer serving the best interests of each state and its motorists. Our transportation mission should evolve to maintain and improve this valuable infrastructure. We must add highway capacity in areas where population and commercial growth are exceeding what our infrastructure can withstand. Likewise, our funding structure must change to meet these shifting priorities.

The policy of revenue sharing was instituted in 1956 because some states with a lot of land mass but lower populations were unable to generate enough revenue to build the roads making up a truly national highway system. Even though the highway system is complete, the current formula continues to send some states excess revenues while the roads and residents of donor states, such as Texas and Arizona, are shortchanged. In short, the gas-tax revenues of Florida, Ohio or any other donor state could well be spent on the bridges of Madison County or bike trails in Vermont rather than on crumbling or congested highways in Miami or Cincinnati.

Furthermore, of the federal funding that states receive, no fewer than 108 federally mandated programs must be factored into decisions on how the money will be spent. And once a state decides to begin a transportation project using some of its federal highway funding, it takes an estimated 12 to 15 years of bureaucratic process before that state can even break ground. This level of federal micromanagement fails to acknowledge that our local leaders are best positioned to carry out the present transportation mission: maintenance and improvement.

To ensure interstate equity and allow states to most efficiently maintain and improve their highways, we have introduced the Highway Fairness and Reform Act of 2009. This bill would give states the choice to opt out of the federal highway program and instead be rebated federal fuel taxes collected within their borders. Our proposal would cut the overwhelming majority of attached federal strings but would require that rebated taxes be spent on surface transportation projects. This option would allow Texas, for example, finally to see its fair share of gas-tax dollars and would ensure that all of our funds could be directed toward improving transportation in high-growth areas of our states.

States that opt out would be required to maintain their Interstate System but could determine which federal programmatic requirements, such as highway enhancements and design standards, would be continued. To ensure that our nation’s roads are safe for all American motorists, safety provisions under the federal highway program, like the minimum drinking age, would continue to fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. transportation secretary.

The federal highway system is one of our nation’s greatest cultural and economic advantages, and it must be maintained for the prosperity of future generations. However, its preservation must not cost some Americans more than others or be micromanaged by those who are least equipped to know the intricacies of existing congestion and traffic-flow issues. No state should be forced to send its gasoline taxes to Washington and get it back with mounds of regulations and a cut in the mound of money returned.

Reforming our national highway system is long overdue, and the time has come to allow each state to determine what is appropriate for its residents and their tax dollars.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, is a member of the U.S. Senate. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, is a member of the House of Representatives.

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