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Still No Solution on Highway Funding


Nan Swift
June 26, 2014

The Senate Finance Committee was expected to markup Sen. Wyden’s (D-OR) Preserving America’s Transit and Highways (PATH) Act today, but the vote was put on hold until after the week-long July 4th recess while the two parties continue to negotiate. The bill attempts to provide a short term funding boost for the long-troubled Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run out of cash by late July as TheHill.com explains:

The traditional funding source for transportation projects has long been collected from the federal gas tax, which is currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon. Infrastructure expenses have outpaced revenue from the gas tax by about $16 billion annually in recent years, partly due to increases in fuel efficiency and a decline in driving.

The PATH Act purported to provide a $9 billion cash injection to the Trust Fund primarily by eliminating stretch IRAs (essentially raising taxes on investments and nest eggs by $3.5 billion over ten years), increasing taxes on heavy trucks, and a hodge-podge of other tax-loophole gimmicks, such as revoking passports for nonpayment of delinquent taxes.  However, a Chairman’s modification to the underlying bill issued only a few hours before the scheduled markup struck the  Heavy Vehicle Use Tax hike, which was expected to raise $1.3 billion over ten years, leaving a large gap in revenue and making it even harder for Senators to find agreement on the legislation.

This isn’t the first time the Highway Trust Fund has hit a “roadblock,” so to speak.  The fund has been repeatedly bailed out with billions from the General Fund over the past six years.  It’s clear another short-term measure is only kicking the can down the road and won’t address the program’s underlying problems. So far, lawmakers on Capitol Hill seem to be focused only on the revenue side of the ledger as one proposal after another has focused on raising taxes or even trying to find savings from the U.S. Postal Service to fund highways, truly a robbing Peter to pay Paul scenario.  However there are some commonsense steps lawmakers should take first to restore solvency to the trust fund before turning to taxpayers with hat in hand.

  1. Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act: The 1931 law requires that workers on federally funded projects of $2,000 or more be paid a “prevailing wage”—the hourly wage paid to a majority of other workers in the area. This often pegs wages to the typically high cost of union labor, artificially inflating the price of public projects and boxing less-skilled or well-connected laborers out of the job market. Reason.com explains the problems with Davis-Bacon here:

Davis-Bacon is a blatant piece of special-interest, pro-union legislation. It hasn't come cheap for taxpayers. According to research by Suffolk University economists, Davis-Bacon has raised the construction wages on federal projects 22 percent above the market rate.

James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation finds that repealing Davis-Bacon would save taxpayers $11.4 billion in 2010 alone. Simply suspending Davis-Bacon would allow government contractors to hire 160,000 new workers at no additional cost, according to Sherk.

2. Stop raiding the Highway Trust Fund for non-highway projects:  The Heritage Foundation’s recent issue brief on the infrastructure funding crisis highlights the way funds are diverted to state and local projects that are outside the intended use of the trust fund:

Transit—including light rail, trolleys, and buses—marks the largest diversion. In 2010 alone, it received 17 percent, or $6 billion, of federal highway user fees, even though it accounted for only about 1 percent of the nation’s surface travel.[3] Despite receiving a portion of federal user fees for decades, transit has failed to reduce traffic congestion or even maintain its share of urban travel. For example, between 1983 and 2010, traffic volumes in the nation’s 51 major metropolitan areas increased by 87 percent, peak travel times in those areas increased by 125 percent, and transit’s share of passenger miles fell by one-fourth.[4]

The transportation alternatives program is another diversion. From FY 2009 to FY 2011, the Federal Highway Administration obligated over $3.1 billion for these activities, which included pedestrian and bicycle paths and facilities, recreation trails, landscaping, environmental mitigation, and transportation museums.[5] The current surface transportation law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), eliminated a handful of previously eligible activities but still required a 2 percent set-aside of total highway funding to fund the remaining ones.

3. Increase privatization and implementation of private-sector innovation:  Decreasing the role of big government is the go-to solution for one problem after another, from student loans to health care to energy. Transportation and infrastructure are no different, despite the tendency of some to believe otherwise. The Mercatus Center has a recent working paper that outlines numerous ways increased privatization and adaption of private-sector technologies can address transportation costs and inefficiencies. As the paper explains:

 The funding shortfalls result mainly from the lack of basic economic principles to guide the provision of public highway and aviation infrastructure. Prices are not aligned with users’ contributions to congestion and delays, investments are not based on benefit-cost analyses, and regulation inflates operating costs.

Increased privatization would help better align use and cost and would change user behavior based on economic benefits.

Of course, the bottom line is that we shouldn’t be spending money we don’t have. The coming Highway Trust Fund shortfall has been anticipated for a long time and not only have lawmakers waited until the eleventh hour to try to strike a deal, but funds have continued to be dispersed above the rate gas tax revenues have come in.  Last-minute deal making rarely bodes well for taxpayers. We should reject tax increases and insist on a long-term solution that addresses our out of control spending problems first.

 


 

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