TEA's co-sponsors contend bill would “open up America’s transportation system to greater local control, better targeted projects, and a more efficient way to maintain and improve the nation’s infrastructure.”

UPDATED: Bill to radically devolve highway funding headed nowhere

Feb. 11, 2014
Measure would slash fuel tax, shift almost all highway authority to states

The Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA) introduced on Capitol Hill in mid-November by Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) that would devolve the federal government’s funding of the nation’s highway infrastructure so that road projects would depend overwhelmingly on state-by-state financing got a fresh airing this week.   

But the prospects of TEA’s passage nearly three months on remain dim at best.

Co-sponsor Rep. Graves “pitched his bill to a friendly audience at the Heritage Action for America conservative policy summit Monday, a daylong affair promoting Republican bills,” pointed out a blog entry by Daniel Malloy posted online by the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC).

The Graves-Lee measure (H.R. 3486 and S.1702, respectively) would drastically cut the federal fuel tax by 14.7 cents per gallon. From there, the bill’s sponsors contend that the resulting yawning shortfall would be made up by the separate states via “greater flexibility in their tax structure.”

It appears their hope is that, were the legislation to pass, the states would then rise to the funding challenge by implementing various funding mechanisms. Observers might surmise that those could perhaps include adding or upping their own fuel taxes or adopting vehicle-mile taxes and other “user fees” or turning to more tolling.

Specifically, passage of TEA would:

  • Transfer almost all authority over federal highway and transit programs to the states over a five-year period
  • Lower the federal gas tax to 3.7 cents from 18.4 cents over the same time period
  • Send the states during the five-year phase out block grants that come with “vastly fewer federal strings attached”

“Our bill does away with the Washington middleman and streamlines the highway program, allowing more projects to be completed at a lower cost,” Graves has stated about the measure.

With this legislation, stated Sen. Lee, “highway authority would be transferred proportionately from the federal government to the states.

“Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached. Instead, states and cities could plan, finance, and build better-designed and more affordable projects,” he continued.

“Some communities could choose to build more roads, while others might prefer to repair old ones,” Sen. Lee added. “Some might build highways, others light-rail. And all would be free to experiment with innovative green technologies, and new ways to finance their projects, like congestion pricing and smart tolls.”

The co-sponsors contend TEA “would completely reform the current highway funding program. It aims to open up America’s transportation system to greater local control, better targeted projects, and a more efficient way to maintain and improve the nation’s infrastructure.”

According to Rep. Graves and Sen. Lee, the measure would also tackle a key issue: “When the costs of federal red tape and Highway Trust Fund redistribution are taken into account, 37 states, including Georgia, have a rate of return below 100%. For example, Georgia’s estimated buying power in Fiscal Year 2014 is anticipated to be approximately 84% based on the most recent Highway Trust Fund payment information available, costing Georgia taxpayers $185 million.”

In addition, the co-sponsors argue that their bill would prevent spending the $820 million authorized nationwide “for so-called ‘transportation alternatives’ defined in part as landscaping, scenic beautification and transportation museums, among other items.”

Per AJC’s Malloy, Rep. Graves said at the Heritage Action for America meeting that his hope is that TEA will get on the policy table in time for consideration when the highway bill comes up for re-authorization less thant eight months from now.

TEA currently has 38 co-sponsors in the House and four in the Senate: Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

However, there’s been no movement for the bill since Nov. 15, when it was referred to the House Subcommittee on Highways & Transit.

Indicative of the measure’s fate was that just last week House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA ) said he would push for a vehicle-miles tax as well as higher taxes on energy exploration and “bringing back” corporate profits earned overseas instead of hiking the fuel tax to pay for the next highway bill.

What’s more, there was no reported mention of TEA by the influential lawmaker.

And it’s certain that, based on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Policy Priorities, the top lobby for American business interests will not be backing TEA.

To wit, the Chamber’s top transportation aim is plain as blacktop: “Ensure Congress “devises a predictable, sustainable, and growing source of dedicated, user fee-based funding for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) in any appropriate legislative vehicle, such as budget agreements and tax reform measures, so that HTF insolvency is addressed in advance of the expiration of  MAP-21.”

In reply to a request for comment on TEA by the American Trucking Assns. (ATA), spokesperson Sean McNally told FleetOwner: "The Constitution requires that the federal government promote interstate commerce, and that includes ensuring that goods can move efficiently across state lines. By its nature, trucking plays a huge role in interstate commerce and ATA supports a continued strong federal role in transportation funding.”

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