Devolving Surface Transportation Infrastructure Responsibilities to the States: What’s Past is Prologue

Transportation Consultant

During the 1919 transcontinental convoy, west of Grand Island, Nebraska, soldiers use a winch to pull a Class B truck out of a ditch. Lt. Col. P. V. Kieffer surveys the scene. (Eisenhower Library; The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Over the entrance of the old Denver Post building was inscribed William Shakespeare’s often-repeated (and sometimes misunderstood) metaphor: “What’s past is prologue.” The meaning of that metaphor was grounded in the notion that the acts of the past set the stage for the future. Some have suggested that the meaning is even more pedestrian: Learn from others’ mistakes.

Recent experience – the Congressional debate over the surface transportation reauthorization and funding for the highway trust fund – suggests that some policy makers have not learned, or are simply refusing, to accept the lessons of the past; such as why the highway trust fund was created in the first place, and why there is a federal role in the financing, funding, construction and operation of the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure.

Forgetting the history of the highway trust fund, the federal role in the development of the Interstate highway system, and other involvements of the federal government in facilitating the evolution of the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure, many congressional and other interests began – with the anticipated passage on of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) in 2005 – to suggest that the federal role should devolve to the states.

This past August, as Congress debated the latest extension of MAP-21, voices as divergent as Ohio Senator Rob Portman and investment banker Felix Rohatyn were joined in the devolution chorus. Senator Portman, along with Senator Mike Lee of Utah, even went so far as to offer an amendment to the highway reauthorization bill that would have allowed states to retain the federal gas tax revenues collected in their jurisdiction to fund their priority surface transportation projects.

In part, the devolution movement is grounded in concern in some quarters that federal funds are not being dedicated to “projects of national significance.” In part, this movement is grounded in the populous drive to end “earmarks.” And in part, this movement is grounded in the unwillingness of congressional decision makers to address the obvious answer to why there is a shortfall in the federal highway fund – declining revenue and increasing requirements for surface transportation investment and maintenance.

For his part, Senator Portman argued that Ohio only gets back 91.3 percent of the dollars collected within the state from the federal gas tax, but is required to fulfill 100 percent of the regulatory demands placed on the state by the federal government. The Congressional Research Service, however, reports that in 2009 Ohio paid approximately $1.142 billion into the highway trust fund and received about $1.437 billion, or 126 percent of its contribution.

Among the demands Senator Portman cited were over “$78 billion on projects that were not related to the maintenance and construction of highways and bridges” between 2004 and 2008. Ironically, between 2006 and 2008, Mr. Portman served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the presidency of George W. Bush, and would surely had a voice in how those federal dollars were spent.

In advocating for the devolution of the federal government’s responsibility, it seems that Senator Portman, Mr. Rohatyn and others have lost sight of the historic reasons why the federal government is involved at the national level, and some would suggest overextended at the local and state levels, in the funding and oversight of the nation’s surface transportation system.

Though few current day policy makers experienced it, or may remember the early years, there was in fact a day when the full responsibility for funding, building, and operating the nation’s surface transportation system was borne by local and state government. One only needs to look at pictures of the nation’s transportation system in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s to realize how primitive it was compared to our present transportation system.

At that time it was up to each state to build and maintain their roads as best they could afford and saw fit. The resulting conditions of this strategy were captured and chronicled in the 1919 cross-country excursion of future U.S. President Eisenhower during which he led 81 Army trucks from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, Calif.

This experience—and subsequent exposure to the advanced national government-supported transportation infrastructure in Europe—caused Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower to champion a national effort to finance, fund, and provide oversight for what we now refer to as our Interstate Highway System. This system and other major national transportation infrastructure improvements made the United States the transportation envy of the world until about a decade ago.

But in the populist rush to eliminate earmarks, and the anti-tax crusade of others, the willingness of Congress to adequately address the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure needs has become a search for the proverbial free lunch. As a result, there has been no adjustment to the federal gas tax in over two decades despite the impact of inflation and improved fuel mileage on revenue flowing into the highway trust fund. This condition has resulted in a growing backlog of maintenance, repair, replacement, and capacity expansion needs that the American Society of Civil Engineers now estimates to be around $170 billion annually just for roads and highways. Add other elements of the nation’s infrastructure and the ASCE estimate leaps to over $3 trillion.

A bridge on Route 70 in Little Rock, Ark., won’t be replaced this year as the state makes plans to address a possible federal funding gap. (Photo credit: Justin Bolle for The Wall Street Journal)

Given, what seems to be an intractable political environment at the national level, more than half of the states (28 by last count) marshaled the courage to pass remedial legislation that made adjustments to their gas taxes and other transportation related fees and taxes over the past two years. But these efforts, while noble, fall woefully short of filling the gap between the nation’s infrastructure needs and the availability of sufficient, reliable funding.

While those who advocate devolving the federal role to the states are well meaning, i.e. they recognize that something must be done to redress the condition of our roads, bridges, transit and passenger rail systems, they somehow believe that it would be more efficient to vest these responsibilities with the states while severely limiting the responsibilities and involvement of the federal government. Their arguments suggest that if states retained the federal gas tax collected within their boundaries and determined unilaterally what their individual infrastructure priorities should be, then the states would be better able to address their needs. For his part, for example, Senator Portman believes that his state was “forced” to direct $78 billion in federal highway trust fund grants over a four year period to projects the state did not want or need. In his argument for devolution, Mr. Rohatyn is a bit more pragmatic, but he glosses over the condition of the nation’s infrastructure when it was solely the states’ responsibility and the vast efficiency of the nation’s infrastructure before policy makers turned their attention away beginning about ten years ago.

The way forward for America’s roads, bridges, rails and transit systems will not be found strictly in raising the federal gas tax. Nor will it be found by making every state a 100 percent recipient of the federal gas tax they collect. The answer, more likely is to remember the lessons of the past. To recall the good that flowed from the strong federal/state partnerships that evolved through the 50 years from the 1950s to the turn of the century, and remember too that in order to have a viable, competitive transportation system as we had in the past, we must invest for the future.

What’s past is prologue.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill