NMA E-Newsletter #131: End The Federal Highway Program?

From the very beginning of the country the federal government has had a role in the provision of roadways. The US Constitution specifically mentions the responsibility “To establish Post Offices and post roads.” However, state and local governments were the dominant road builders (and funders) for most of the nation’s history.

There were fits and starts of federal hyperactivity, most notably in our lifetimes, the federal highway program and the construction of the Interstate Highway System, originally funded with a penny tax on motor fuels. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, federal involvement in ground transportation expanded, as did the federal fuel tax.

A political fact of life is that he who pays also makes the rules. This has been proven repeatedly through the federal highway program; the most poignant example for NMA members being the much despised 55 MPH National Speed Limit.

Other examples include a national mandate requiring helmet usage by motorcyclists (repealed in 1977), the 21 year old drinking age requirement, and acceptance and enforcement of the Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

All of these provisions, and others, were enforced through the threat of withholding federal highway funds from states that failed to comply.

There is little doubt that the current national financial woes will result in a much diminished federal highway program, quite probably half of what it had been in past budgets.

There is no political will to openly raise federal fuel taxes (although back door approaches periodically surface). But no one has asked the big question; should the federal highway program be dismantled, or replaced with a different national approach to advancing and improving our ground transportation system?

In the extreme, if the federal highway program was eliminated the states could increase their fuel tax $.18 with no increase passed through to consumers.

There would be no “leakage” that now occurs with the trip to Washington, D.C. and back, and the states could set their own priorities as to how the funds would be spent. And, the feds would lose their leverage to coerce the states into taking actions that they would not otherwise take.

However, there would also be the potential for the loss of practical uniformity in traffic control devices, highway design standards, and the ability to focus national resources where there are needs in excess of state or local funding.

Perhaps there’s a middle ground that eliminates the waste, misappropriation, and federal meddling while still retaining the benefits of uniformity where uniformity really matters, as well as focusing limited federal resources on projects of national importance?

For example, limit federal construction and maintenance funding to Interstate highways. All other streets roads and highways, including federal highways that are not Interstates, would be the total responsibility of state and local governments.

Eliminate federal funding, at least funding derived from fuel taxes, of local transit systems and other projects and purposes not directly related to construction and maintenance of Interstate highways. Cease federal funding of local traffic enforcement campaigns and programs.

Switch the funding of NHTSA from the fuel tax to a tax on auto-insurance companies and vehicle manufacturers. And, reduce the federal fuel tax in relation to these reduced expenditures and thereby allowing states to raise fuel taxes that can be applied to their additional responsibilities.

We know what those with a vested interest in the status quo think, but what are your thoughts and concerns, given you’re the one who ultimately pays the bill?

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