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Here's How Conservatives Want To Fundamentally Change The Way The US Pays For Highways

Brett LoGiurato
Highway collapse traffic


The House of Representatives is set to vote Tuesday on a short-term patch to the federal Highway Trust Fund, an issue that is making for interesting alliances on Wednesday.

The White House signaled late Monday night that President Obama supports the short-term patch hatched out of the House Ways and Means Committee, even though he and many congressional Democrats are grumbling about the lack of a longer-term fix. But leading the way in opposition to the plan are conservative groups and lawmakers who want transportation policy to fundamentally change within the next year.

Conservative groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth are leading the charge to gradually devolve transportation funding to individual states, arguing they would be in better position to determine their own projects without being dependent on Washington. They say they have been warning about the looming crisis — or, as they put it, the need for a "bailout" — since 2012, the last time Congress shored up the Highway Trust Fund.

"Giving that money to the states is a really uncontroversial idea," Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, told Business Insider in an interview. " Nobody across the country cares if some bureaucrats in Washington and handful of committee members aren’t having a say in how they spend state and local money."

For conservatives, highway spending provides another chance to debate federal role in policies they view as better handled by states. In an issue much like their views on education, they say states are uniquely positioned to decide for themselves what projects they want to undertake, providing them a way out of Washington's guidelines and strings attached. And in this case, they also argue that the "offsets" in the bill are gimmicks that won't actually cut spending in the long run.

Both Heritage Action and the Club for Growth are "key voting" the House's vote on Tuesday, which means it will be a vote on which they score House members. The conservative Madison Project also opposes the plan because it uses the gimmick known as "pension smoothing" as an offset, Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman for the group, told Business Insider. 

Andy Roth, the Club for Growth's vice president of government affairs, said the bill displays a lack of seriousness on the part of lawmakers, since it doesn't contain structural reforms to the fund that would prevent a similar situation in the future.

" This bill uses budget gimmicks and fee increases to bail out a wasteful and inefficient program that shouldn't even exist," Roth wrote in a letter to members of Congress on Monday.

Roth's letter hints at where the groups want to eventually take the debate. Though conservatives are opposed to a patched-up extension now and say it won't constitute a "crisis," they're gearing up for a much bigger fight ahead of a deadline next spring.

Highway traffic gridlock

David McNew/Getty Images

The House GOP's bill will keep the trust fund solvent through next May. Conservatives have begun to rally around bills from Rep. Tom Graves (R-Georgia) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), which would gradually phase out the federal gas tax and leave it up to states to decide how they want to raise revenue to fund projects.

"We're optimistic. There are more people talking about that as a solution," Holler said. "Everybody agrees with the rhetoric. It's hard to argue that states should have less control over their transportation projects. So we feel that we're picking up steam in that direction."

The gas tax, currently at 18.4 cents per gallon, has not been raised in more than 20 years. It's a key factor in the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund that some lawmakers have dubbed a "construction shutdown," since Americans have cut back on driving overall and have trended toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The bills put forward by Graves and Lee would gradually decrease the gas tax to 3.7 cents per gallon over five years, leaving it up to states whether they want to raise their own gas taxes or find revenue through other means.

But some opponents of that plan argue some smaller states would be wholly unable to fund all of the burgeoning problems with their highways and infrastructure. Under the federal system, different states get different levels of help. For example, in 2011, New York received less than 15% of its total highway and transit funding from the federal government, according to an analysis from  Pew Charitable Trusts. Montana, on the other hand, received almost 60% of its total funding from Washington. 

Others make a similar argument, theorizing some states that serve as crucial coastal in-betweens for commerce and homeland security shipments would not be able to keep up with highway and transit projects at a necessary pace.

"Proposals by Heritage Action and its acolytes at the Club for Growth to 'devolve' federal highway spending without offering a viable alternative are unserious and irresponsible," Association of Equipment Manufacturers spokesman Michael O'Brien said in a statement on Monday, responding to the two groups' key-vote announcements.

The conservative groups, however, say that removing federal funding from states' highway and transportation funding wouldn't constitute a "crisis" or a "highway shutdown." Holler points to recent testimony from the Congressional Budget Office's Joseph Kile. He said that, on average, states receive about one-quarter of their spending on building, operating, and maintaining highways, as well as on mass-transit projects, from the federal government.

That's why when Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned about a 28% cut in federal money to states beginning next month, Heritage Action and the other groups scoffed. Because that number only represents a cut in federal funding, it constitutes only about a 7% reduction in total assistance, Holler said, urging lawmakers to think twice before voting this time.

"Lawmakers don't have to feel as though they have to do something before they go home in August," Holler told Business Insider. "Because whenever they have to 'do something,' they typically make really bad decisions."

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