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Without reform, Americans will find traffic much more taxing

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Your Gas Tax Dollars Paid for This?

Without reform, Americans will find traffic much more taxing

With the House having passed its version of the highway bill and the Senate favorably disposed to do the same, there will undoubtedly be a lot of backslapping and high-fives exchanged among transportation lobbyists, bureaucrats in state departments of transportation, and members of the transportation committees in Congress.

Of course, although more than a few will complain that the final package — assuming the price tag remains at only  $284 billion — is too small and will leave the nations roads in gridlock, a close look at the earmarks in the bill that passed the House might cause harried motorists to wonder if Congress is more concerned about bike lane capacity, better museums, and aesthetically pleasing byways than every day traffic woes. Earmarks have long been the bane of good government types and fiscal conservatives, and this year’s bill will be no different. The House bill alone — even before Senators have the opportunity to add their pork items to the mix — contains 4,128 earmarks worth a total of $12.4 billion. This breaks down to 3,676 high priority projects  worth $11.1 billion; 443 bus and bus facility projects totaling $1.1 billion; and various other projects totaling $192 million.

Although the sheer number of earmarks is bad enough, even worse is the fact that so much of the money contained in the transportation bill — money that is paid into the federal Treasury by motorists when they fill up their gas tanks — ends up being diverted to whatever use Congress chooses. Motorists provide massive subsidies for mass transit. In fact, of the $284 billion being dished out by the House, more than $52 billion, or 18%, will be used to fund transit projects. The increasing diversion of gas taxes to transit, which began in 1982 with the creation of a Mass Transit Account within the Highway Trust Fund, coincides with the worsening gridlock on our nation’s roads. Now, 2.85 cents out of the 15.45 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax is diverted away from roads in order to fund programs that are used for only 2% of person-miles  of travel as opposed to roads, which are used for 91% of person-miles traveled. Diverting gas taxes, which are so often mistakenly portrayed by the transportation lobby as user fees, is destructive enough. However, just as confusing is the increasingly common diversion of limited gas tax money for projects such as the beautification of public roads and the funding of other low-priority projects such as hiking trails, covered bridges, historic preservation, and museums. Congress may indeed consider the construction of bike trails to be among its top priorities, but it is hard to believe that motorists would rather have their gas taxes used to fund these schemes instead of better, safer roads. In order to create a better understanding of exactly what Congress is using our road money for, NTU has compiled information on the non-road earmarks contained in the House bill. Of the 3,676 so-called "high priority" projects,  more than 10% have nothing to do with actually getting people to work or home. Diverted funding totals $578 million, and considering the fact that bike trails and beautification are less expensive than actual roads, the situation could undoubtedly be much worse. A handful of the most egregious projects NTU found in its survey of pork are listed below:

  • #5 Renovate and expand local Packard museum and adjacent Packard facilities in Warren, Ohio: $3 million;
  • #102 West Ridge Nature Preserve near Chicago, Illinois: $3 million;
  • #369 Rehabilitate a historic transportation-related warehouse on the Erie Canal in the Town of Lyons, New York: $600,000;
  • #462 High Knob Horse Trails-construction of horse riding trails and associated facilities in High Knob area of Jefferson, Virginia: $750,000;
  • #507 Reconstruction and conversion of Union Station to establish a transportation museum, North Canaan, Connecticut: $1,705,000;
  • #1446 Bicycle and Pedestrian Trail Network in East Austin, Texas: $9.6 million;
  • #1834 Plan and construct a bicycle and pedestrian trail in Murfeesboro, Tennessee: $9 million;
  • #2181 Queens and Brooklyn County Graffiti Elimination Program, including Kings Highway from Ocean Parkway to McDonald Avenue: $4 million.

There are many remedies to this fiscally irresponsible habit, from budget process reforms that discourage earmarking to proposals (H.R. 1097) introduced in the 109th Congress by Representative Scott Garrett (R.-N.J.) and (H.R. 3113) introduced in the 108th Congress by Representative Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), both of which would devolve most federal transportation functions to the states. Unless one of these remedies is enacted, Americans are likely to find traffic a lot more taxing.

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Written By

Mr. Gessing is the president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

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