House GOP’s Misguided “Drilling for Roads” Highway Bill Heads to Floor Vote

by Marc Scribner on February 6, 2012

in Blog, Features

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In a previous post here, I noted the major problems with House GOP leadership’s proposal to link revenue from expanded domestic energy production with the Highway Trust Fund in their surface transportation reauthorization legislation. Since then, the three major portions have cleared their respective committees: House Natural Resources approved the drilling proposals, Transportation and Infrastructure passed the primary highway bill, and the revenue link was cleared by Ways and Means. A vote by the full House is expected sometime next week.

Observers expect the bill to fail, not only because there is very little for Democrats to like, but also because principled fiscal conservatives — from our “user-pays” coalition to Heritage Action to Club for Growth to RedState — have all slammed the legislation as a Big Government wolf wrapped in pro-market, pro-growth sheep’s clothing. This proposed bill would continue to federally fund highways at unsustainable levels and fails to address how states are to begin reconstructing their portions of the Interstate system. For instance, it explicitly bans states from tolling existing Interstate segments even for the purpose of reconstruction. Reconstruction to current highway construction guidelines by definition increases capacity, yet the tolling section author(s) apparently didn’t find this additional capacity enhancing enough to justify allowing states to implement an intelligent financing mechanism that can actually pay for the needed investment.

Furthermore, the bill seemed to have been assembled with little care as to how certain provisions might impact the real world. For example, a reasonable proposal to increase maximum truck weights on federal highways was defeated in committee in large part because the legislative author(s) of that provision did not include a way to pay for the increased wear and tear. An example of a clean pay-for in this case would have been to simply remove the cap on the annual Heavy Vehicle Use Tax and perhaps adjust the Tire Tax and Truck and Trailer Sales Tax rates accordingly. Or perhaps allow states to opt-in and take over funding responsibility of the additional wear and tear. But did they include such a pay-for or devolution option? Of course they didn’t, and that underscores the problem.

There are essentially two very different (rational) options for moving forward: (1) greatly increase user taxes (primarily fuel taxes) at the federal level to fund reconstruction; or (2) start devolving highway funding to the states and permit them to toll (and contract with private partners) existing sections of Interstate to finance reconstruction.

In our view, option (2) is far superior. The federal government has no real business funding highways and it has proven through years of ineptitude that it is not capable of effectively doing so. Like every highway bill since ISTEA (1991) — which was the first reauthorization following the completion of the Interstate Highway System — Congress appears willing to punt, rather than address in any meaningful way the serious problems of the status quo.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post here at, CEI held a briefing on Capitol Hill along with the Reason Foundation, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Natural Resources Defense Council (yes, you read that correctly) explaining why moving away from a “user-pays/user-benefits” highway funding principle would be a grave mistake. See that previous blog post for more detail on “user-pays.” You can watch the video of the briefing below:

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