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Conservatives See Highway Trust Fund Fight as Road to State Control of Transportation Spending

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Graves, center, introduced a bill last year that would phase out the federal gas tax.

Conservative groups and Republican lawmakers want to revive a policy debate over the federal role in transportation policy as Congress gets ready to debate a long-term reauthorization of highway and transit programs.

The 2012 surface transportation law (PL 112-141) expires at the end of September, but money for projects dries up earlier than that, in July. Congress will almost certainly have to pass a short-term patch sometime in the next few weeks. In the Senate, leaders are looking at a six-month bill that would carry the program until the lame-duck session after the November elections. In the House, Speaker John A. Boehner said last week he’s looking for a “nine- to 12-month” solution, when a new Congress will be in place.

For conservatives, that will be the time to make another attempt to ease the federal government out of transportation decisions and give states more authority to spend federal money without following Washington’s guidelines and formulas so closely. That’s the case they already are making in proposals from the right addressing the impending shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund and the move toward the broader highway bill.

“You’re seeing the groundwork being laid now for what will become a real conversation about the future of the federal role in surface transportation,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Our point is the people up here aren’t the best ones to make decisions. Let’s cut out the middle man and move this back to the states where it belongs.”

Conservatives are rallying around bills introduced last year by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, (S 1702) and Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., (HR 3486) that would phase out the federal gasoline tax and turn over most of the federal transportation program to state legislatures. Their bills would reduce the tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents per gallon over five years. States could then decide whether to make up the difference by raising their own gas taxes. They would also have more authority to decide how that money would be spent.

“All states and localities should finally have the flexibility to develop the kind of transportation system they want, for less money, without politicians and special interests from other parts of the country telling them how, when, what and where they should build,” Lee has said of his plan.

Debate on the Gas Tax

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