A federal gas tax or a state gas tax? Does it matter?

A federal gas tax or a state gas tax? Does it matter?

The magazine Civil + Structural Engineer is in near hysterics reporting on a proposal from “conservative activist groups” that would “force states to raise their gasoline and diesel motor fuel taxes,” as if Civil + Structural Engineer would be appalled by such a notion (clearly they would not). The legislation they are upset with is called the Transportation Empowerment Act, a proposal by Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Republican Representative Tom Graves of Georgia that would end the Eisenhower interstate program -- #nonewroads – except for maintenance, turning back future system expansion to the states.

Here is how the act is described in an article from thehill.com:

A bill filed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) would gradually eliminate federal funding of transportation projects. 

The measure, which has been dubbed the Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), would lower the gas tax that currently pays for most federal transportation projects from 18.4 cents-per-gallon to 3.7 cents in five years.

During the same time period, the bill would transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants. 

The act is worth having a conversation about and, in many ways, I see the merits of acknowledging that the interstate system is built and we should now focus on maintaining it. Using a military analogy: when you have a big gun, you tend to find an excuse to use it. We’ve had the big gun of a huge transportation slush fund for decades and, even though the system has long been built, our politicians and bureaucrats have found ways to use it, mostly building unnecessary highways and stroads. Eliminating the gas tax – except what is needed for maintenance of the interstate system – is one viable strategy that should be on the table.

Some quotes from the Civil + Structural Engineer article would dispute that assertion:

“The Transportation Empowerment Act and the rationale these groups offer for it show a gross misunderstanding of how the federal-state partnership to provide a core function of government—providing citizens and U.S. businesses safe and efficient mobility through transportation infrastructure—works,” Pete Ruane, TCC co-chair and president and CEO of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said. “It would be, at best, irresponsible for a Member of Congress to put their name on this legislation unless they first commit to leading the charge in their state to raise their gas tax, or other state taxes, or cut other specific state programs to fill the funding gap this legislation would create.”

Then we’ve got this one:

“All this legislation would do is force drivers to pay more at the pump without delivering any improvements to the quality of safety of the roads and bridges they use,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America and the Co-Chair of the TCC.

Let’s not pretend the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the Associated General Contractors of America have an academic viewpoint here worthy of taking seriously. Can we envision a scenario where they say, "Yeah, we've built enough"? It will never happen, right?

So with that in mind, let’s examine the headline notion of the article: that this would force states to raise their gas taxes and, as the shill from the Associated General Contractors of America says, “force drivers to pay more at the pump.” The Transportation Empowerment Act would reduce the federal gas tax by 14.7 cents per gallon and the diesel tax by 19.3 cents per gallon. Here’s the map put together to support the hysterics that details – on average – how much each state’s gas tax would need to be increased to "compensate for the lack of federal funds".

So if you live in Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, New Hampshire, Mississippi, Washington State or a number of other states, this is a net plus right out of the gate. You stop paying your ~17 cents per gallon to the feds, pay it instead to the state, and you have more transportation revenue without any net tax increase. You’re not “forced to pay more” under any system other than the current one.

So what about all those other states? What about California, which would need a net 9 cent increase? Or Wyoming, which would need a net 25 cent increase? Let’s make sure we understand what that money represents and where it comes from.

Stroading on one of an endless supply of California straods. Who should pay for this stuff?

Stroading on one of an endless supply of California straods. Who should pay for this stuff?

If you live in Wyoming and you are paying to the federal government ~17 cents per gallon of gas beyond what it takes to maintain the interstate system, yet you are receiving back 44.5 cents per gallon of transportation revenue from the federal government, where does that money come from? It doesn’t magically appear; it comes from one of two sources: (1) other states and (2) federal debt.

So if we are going to be talking about what is and what is not “responsible” let’s ask the questions: If we’re properly maintaining the interstate system thus enabling interstate commerce to fully function to the benefit of all in the union (which is what the Transportation Empowerment Act would do), what role does Mississippi have to play in funding transportation improvements prioritized by Wyoming? Why are New Hampshire voters paying for California's stroads?

And on top of it all, if we as a nation do not value the transportation improvements we are making enough to pay for them, how do we justify taking on debt as a sweetener to lubricate the politicized funding process inherent in this centralized system?

Before I read the Civil + Structural Engineer article, I wasn’t an advocate of the Transportation Empowerment Act. If you are defined by your enemies, however, having hysteric members of the Infrastructure Cult line up against it makes me think it deserves a lot more attention.