October 1, 2007
By Ernest Istook
When the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, America mourned - as
It will take months to determine the cause, but one effect was
immediate: Political opportunists proposed higher gasoline taxes to
fix our roads and bridges.
Yes, we have a road funding problem - because Congress has
mismanaged our highway money for 25 years. Why trust them with
Since 1982, Congress has siphoned $101 billion (in 2007 buying
power) from the Highway Trust Fund to subsidize the 2 percent of
travel that uses mass transit. Even while bridges slipped closer to
collapse, Congress diverted additional billions from trust funds to
build bicycle paths.
There's talk of starting a "new" trust fund by raising gas
taxes. That same line was used to sell the old trust fund - raided
so often it now resembles a leaky bucket.
Even fuel taxes spent on highways are often squandered. Thanks
to the Davis-Bacon Act and other bureaucratic red tape, projects
cost billions more than they should. And too many projects are
picked for political merit rather than public safety. The 2005
transportation bill allocated $315 million for Alaska's infamous
Bridge to Nowhere, plus nearly $24 billion in 6,000 other
congressional earmarks. Minnesota got $453 million in earmarks for
144 other projects, but none to fix the bridge that has fallen.
The American Society of Civil Engineers blames substandard roads
and crumbling bridges for one-third of the 40,000 annual highway
deaths. Estimates vary on the cost to bring these facilities up to
par, but it's in the tens of billions. Fixing them years ago would
have been cheaper - and our families would be safer - if Congress
hadn't been spending the road money on other things. It wasn't
supposed to be this way.
In 1956, gasoline taxes rose to fund interstate highways, but
every penny of fuel taxes went into a new highway trust fund. Until
1982, the trust fund was used solely for roads and bridges. In
1982, Congress increased fuel taxes, but dictated that mass transit
thereafter would get one-fifth whenever fuel taxes went up, even
though transit users pay none of that tax.
In 1991 (the year after the Minnesota bridge was rated
structurally deficient), Congress undercut roads again by mandating
that 10 percent of surface transportation spending go to
"transportation enhancements" - defined as bike paths, pedestrian
trails, downtown beautifications, "encouraging safe walking" and
building transportation museums. Today it remains illegal to spend
this 10 percent on highways, roads or bridges.
Since 1991 these "enhancements" have gobbled $8.5 billion from
the highway trust fund. The National Transportation Enhancements
Clearinghouse reports half went to bicycle and walking trails.
Those are nice to have, but it's not right to use highway trust
dollars on them while our roads sag into disrepair.
So who wants to raise gasoline taxes rather than end this abuse?
The leading advocate is the House Transportation Committee
chairman, Rep. Jim Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, who also champions
the current system that siphons fuel taxes away from highways.
In 2003, Mr. Oberstar opposed an effort to put enhancement
dollars back into highways, arguing: "It is not enough just to roll
over the highways and roll over the bridges. It is more important
to enhance the life of every community in America, and that is what
the enhancements program has given us the opportunity to do."
Sadly, the U.S. House agreed by a 3-to-1 margin.
Motorists have become Congress' cash cows. The Bureau of
Transportation Statistics reports that only road users pay
subsidies; all other travelers receive subsidies, with the biggest
going to mass transit and rail passengers.
On average, transit riders pay about one-fourth of the cost of
their travel. If they paid their own way, the highway trust fund
wouldn't be running dry. Instead, road users are singled-out to
shell out, like New York City's plan to tax drivers $8-a-day to
raise billions for transit. Since 1983, motorists have had $101
billion taken from them and given to mass transit, plus billions
more to bike paths. Why entrust more to a Congress that can't spend
President Bush is right to say no to higher taxes. The right
step toward fixing our roads and bridges is to fix our
Ernest J. Istook
Jr., a former Republican member of the House of Representatives
from Oklahoma, is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage
Foundation. He was chairman of the House Appropriations
First Appeared in the Washington Times
When the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, America mourned - as we should.
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