Just about every media outlet has covered the recommendations coming from the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission's two-year study that was released Tuesday. (report available here)
Basically, the Commission is recommending that the current gasoline tax of 18.4 centers per gallon be raised 40 cents over the next five years. Under their proposal, the tax would go up anywhere from 5 cents to 8 cents each year and then indexed to inflation afterward to help fix the nation's transportation infrastructure.
The study also calls for a new federal bureaucracy to centralize transportation decision making, new limitations on states’ abilities to attract private sector investments and a first of its kind federal tax on all public transportation and intercity passenger rail tickets.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters, and Commissioners Maria Cino and Rick Geddes, won't sign the final report, releasing their own recommendations under a 'Chairman's Statement.'
From their press release:
“Raising gas taxes won’t improve traffic congestion, it will only perpetuate our ineffective reliance on fossil-based fuels to fund infrastructure and send more of Americans’ hard-earned money to Washington to be squandered on earmarks and special interest programs,” Secretary Peters said. “A better way forward is to provide incentives to states willing to pursue more efficient approaches and to invest federal funds more effectively to give commuters real relief from gridlock.”
The Secretary said she was deeply troubled by the Commission’s call for an up to 40 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax increase over the next five years, rising to up to 91 cents in 20 years when indexed for inflation. She added the report also assumes that states will increase their gas taxes by up to 60 cents per gallon over the next five years. She said recent studies, including one from the Government Accountability Office last summer, have concluded gas taxes don’t work to reduce traffic congestion.
“There is nothing to indicate that Washington would do a better job spending billions more of the taxpayers’ money than it has so far,” said Secretary Peters. “The answer isn’t more taxes and added layers of bureaucracy, it is having the courage to say the current system is broken and it is time to find a better way to invest in, manage and operate our transportation system.”
Here's the thing...following the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) offered an amendment calling on the Senate to place a temporary moratorium on transportation pork until all structurally deficient bridges are repaired. Amazingly, the Senate voted 82-14 to prioritize pork over bridge repairs in the transportation budget. (My previous posts on Sen. Coburn's efforts on the Transportation bill are here and here.)
In July, Taxpayers for Common Sense reported that the FY08 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Appropriations bill contained more than 1,400 earmarks worth a total of nearly $2.2 billion for every state in the nation except, interestingly, Alaska. (Their listing of the earmarks is available here.)
"One of the more interesting aspects of the manager’s report is the discussion about the dire financial straits facing the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The HTF is the account in which all of the nation’s gas tax receipts are deposited for use repairing and building the nation’s highway system. The HTF will run a negative balance sometime in 2009 (since this is the FY08 budget cycle, that’s next year!), yet the Congress and the President fail to make any substantive proposals that would alter this outcome. The Committee unhelpfully points out that the President didn’t propose any new ideas, and then happily slices and dices a number of programs into 1,400 earmarks.
TCS has long maintained that earmarking is one of the problems that has led to this bleak outlook for the HTF. Lack of prioritization has been a huge problem for our nation’s transportation program for many years now. When the money coming out of Washington is so thinly sliced, it spreads it out to too many projects for the trust fund to support. In addition, when transportation decisions are made based on political might (ie. earmarks) instead of on the nation’s true transportation needs, the priorities still need to be funded. Again, this spreads the limited financial resources too thin and the trust fund balance slips toward the red.
It is no surprise that the Chair and Ranking of the Appropriations Committee (Reps. Obey (D-WI) and Lewis (R-CA)) and the Transportation-HUD subcommittee (Reps. Olver (D-MA) and Knollenberg (R-MI) were some of the biggest winners in this bill.
* Rep. Olver receives 16 earmarks worth a total of $16.24 million, including $275,000 for the private Barrington Stage Company to renovate the Berkshire Music Hall and Octagon House and $100,000 for a Massachusetts Landscape Connectivity Study
* Rep. Knollenberg receives 11 earmarks worth $6.25 million, including $250,000 for Walsh College, a private college, for completion of its library
* Rep. Obey receives 13 earmarks worth $16.24 million
* Rep. Lewis receives 7 earmarks worth $5.15 million
In all, the Appropriations Committee garners more than $164 million, nearly 23 percent of the $724 million in Congressional adds and increases, yet have only 17 percent of the House’s total membership.
Other earmarks included in the bill:
$100,000 for the Murray Athletic Center at Elmira College (a private institution) in Horseheads, NY, secured by Rep. Rand Kuhl (R-NY)
$250,000 for construction at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, WA, secured by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA)
$100,000 for the Wakely Lodge Resort, a golf course, for renovation of the Wakely Lodge in Hamilton, NY, secured by Rep. John McHugh (R-NY)
$81 million (admin request was $74.2 million) for the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), which is a project of the Mitre Corporation, headquartered in McLean, Virginia and Bedford, Massachusetts. This was not disclosed as an earmark.
$750,000 for the Indian Street Bridge project in Martin, Florida, secured by Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Mahoney (FL).
$1 million (two earmarks) for the Interstate 66 project in Kentucky, secured by Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY).
$1 million for the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville, KY, secured by Rep. Yarmuth (D-KY).
$50,000 for the National Forest Recreation Association, for construction of a National Mule and Packers Museum in Bishop, CA, secured by Rep. McKeon (R-CA).
$250,000 for Downtown Roanoke (VA) for Infrastructure renovations for awnings of the historic market, secured by Rep. Goodlatte (R-VA).
$100,000 for the Town of Boydton (VA) for development of the Walking Tour of Boydton, secured by Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA)
$250,000 for Phenix City (AL) for riverfront development, secured by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL)
Perhaps if they weren't so busy spending the transportation funds on items like wine and culinary centers, museums, markets, walking tours and golf courses, they'd discover they didn't NEED a new gas tax to cover the costs of transportation infrastructure improvements
In the end, if you give the federal government more money, they will spend it on their own pet projects...all the while claiming they don't have enough money and then voting to make us pay more in taxes...it's a vicious cycle.
The problem isn't a lack of money for the needed infrastructure improvements - it's the lack of making such improvements the priority. If they had been truly interested in the infrastructure, 82 senators wouldn't have voted to table Sen. Coburn's temporary moratorium on transportation pork.
And while I blame Congress for doing this, I also blame the American people for letting it happen.
A federal panel wants to triple the gasoline tax to improve the nation's infrastructure. A better solution is to limit spending from gasoline tax revenues to essential -- and real -- highway projects, says Investor's Business Daily (IBD).
* A mere 60 percent of revenues collected from the gas tax are left for essential road work.
* One-tenth of federal transportation spending is pork; in the last transportation bill, more than 6,000 pet projects costing $24 billion drained money away from where it was needed.
* Gas tax revenues are used to fund bike paths, nature trails, pedestrian walkways, visitors centers, public parks, parking lots and museums.
In an era of painfully high retail fuel prices, the average U.S. household is paying roughly $214 in federal gasoline taxes each year, says IBD. Add in state and local levies and the total ranges from $313 in Alaska to $588 in California. Congress shouldn't dare ask for more.
Yes, the country's roads and bridges need work. It would be wrong, though, to pry more money from motorists when the job can be done by spending current revenues they way they are supposed to be spent. The problem is not a lack of revenues, but a lack of character in Washington, says IBD.
Source: Editorial, "Bridge To Our Wallets," Investor's Business Daily, January 16, 2008.