The federal government establishes spending priorities and limits for federal highways in six-year programs. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, usually called TEA-21, expired last September when the House and Senate could not agree on a new six-year plan.
At stake is billions of dollars for highway projects funded largely by the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal fuel tax motorists pay every time they fill up their tanks. While state fuel taxes vary from state to state, everyone pays the federal fuel tax.
Because the federal tax is the same across the country, it is a good indicator of highway usage on a state-by-state basis. A state that generates the most revenue from the federal fuel tax usually has the heaviest traffic and the most highways. But some states, like Missouri, maintain thousands of miles more of state highways than other states where counties and cities are required to maintain a larger share of the roads.
Finding a fair -- and equitable -- way of dispersing federal highway funding back to states is no easy chore. Nor can the House and Senate agree on how much money will be -- or should be -- available for federal highways over the next six years. And neither chamber of Congress agrees with the Bush administration's proposal.
As a result, the TEA-21 authorization has been extended until a new bill authorizing federal highway funding is approved. But the battles are raging. Some states are pressuring their federal legislators for a bigger share of the pot. At a minimum, most states would like to get back as much as they send to Washington.
Some states, like Alaska, with few highways and high construction and maintenance costs, get back far more in federal revenue for highways that is collected in that state. Alaska, for example, got back $6.40 for every $1 of federal fuel tax it collected under TEA-21. Missouri gets back slightly less than a dollar for every dollar its motorists pay in federal fuel tax.
As with nearly everything else, costs are going up. The current Senate highway funding bill calls for a 46 percent increase over the next six years to $318 billion from $218 billion. The House version is up 30 percent. But the White House threatens to veto any spending plan larger than $256 billion, a 17 percent increase.
Meanwhile, an Associated Press survey shows many Americans, particularly in congested areas of the country, are fed up with the inconvenience caused by congested highways, and 56 percent of those surveyed said they would favor higher taxes to pay for improved transportation. Slightly more than half said they think expanding public transportation in those high-traffic areas should be the top priority for government spending.
The United States has always had a vigorous highway program. The interstate system has been a major factor in development and expansion as well as allowing timely delivery of consumer goods. But with development and expansion comes the need for bigger and better highways.
The next federal highway plan should be based on those needs, reflect each state's support through the federal fuel tax and avoid shenanigans that divert funding on the basis of political clout.
The name of the bill is the Transportation Equity Act. Congress and the White House should make every effort for equitable funding.