Probably the most predictable thing to occur in Washington is when politicians respond to a failing government program with calls to expand the program. The calls for higher federal gasoline taxes in response to the recent bridge collapse in Minnesota is a perfect example.
It is now painfully obvious that Congress' highway funding process is full of misplaced priorities. Powerful politicians have funneled gas taxes from other states to their own and used earmarks to fund unnecessary construction. As the same time, true safety needs such as bridge repair and road maintenance have been neglected.
Now, many of the same people who are responsible for the mismanagement of our tax dollars want higher taxes and more federal control. But raising the gas tax by more than 27 percent, as some in Congress have proposed, will only ensure more misplaced priorities and more infrastructure failures.
Americans can see for themselves that many of our roads need repair and many would be willing to pay more for better roads and bridges, if they had any reason to believe that is how the money would be spent. But politicians continue to promise that new taxes will go to important projects only to divert them to for parochial, pork-barrel spending.
Enough is enough. The time has come for an innovative solution that gives states full access to its funds while providing them with the ability to use these funds for true priorities. This way we can tackle our infrastructure needs without abusing American taxpayers.
The U.S. Department of Transportation was created nearly 50 years ago to build an interstate highway system. By any measure, this goal has been achieved, giving us roads and bridges that cross our nation from coast to coast. But in recent years the federal highway program has fallen victim to special interest carve-outs that allow lawmakers in Washington to earmark scarce funds for "bridges to nowhere," bike paths, nature trails, and inefficient urban transit systems. This has left fewer resources to build or repair critical infrastructure projects as politicians prefer to tout earmarks for shiny new projects that win them headlines.
The current system also uses a formula that takes money from some states and funnels it to others. South Carolina has historically received only 89 cents back for every dollar in gasoline taxes it sends to Washington, while some states, like Alaska, get as much as $6 in return.
To add insult to injury, the federal government ties heavy regulations to the funds it sends back to the states. These layers and layers of red tape not only force states to spend their money on earmarked projects but they also tell states how the projects must be built. These regulations, such as the Davis-Bacon labor mandate, needlessly drive up the cost of construction by as much as 35 percent. If the federal government were taken out of the equation, states could increase construction for repairs and maintenance by more than a third without increasing gas taxes by a single penny.
Yet many lawmakers see an opportunity to capitalize on this recent tragedy to increase their power at the expense of the safety of American motorists and well-being of American taxpayers. A knee-jerk increase in the gas tax will not only continue to allow Congress to waste valuable infrastructure dollars, it will force American families to pay higher gasoline prices at the pump and hurt our economy by increasing the prices of nearly every product we buy.
Let states do it
Fortunately, there is a better way forward that will give states such as South Carolina the ability to meet its transportation needs. I have sponsored a bill called the Transportation Empowerment Act that would turn back control of the majority of the federal highway program to individual states, starting in 2010 when the current highway program expires. Under this proposal, the federal gas tax would be reduced from 18.3 cents to 3.7 cents, leaving only what is needed to fund a limited number of programs that serve a clear national purpose. States would then adjust their gasoline taxes to collect these funds at the state level.
This legislation would provide states with greater flexibility, allowing them the freedom to determine what is best for their communities. This includes the ability to develop innovative ways to finance roads as well as the ability to partner with other states to undertake major multi-state projects.
The 50-year-old federal highway program has become a bureaucracy of red tape and inefficiency that no longer makes sense for our nation. Rather than expanding this failed program by forcing states to send more taxes to nowhere, we should put an end to Washington's micromanagement of our infrastructure needs so we can ensure highway safety and economic growth for the next 50 years.
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