States Push for More Road Money

 

Federal highway funding isn't always fair. Twenty states collectively paid $1.8 billion more into a national highway fund than they got back for road and bridge projects in 2003, according to the most recent federal data available. Now these states and their U.S. representatives want to assure they get more of their federal gasoline taxes back.

They want to write language into a transportation money bill currently creeping through Congress that would require states to get back 92 percent to 95 percent of the federal gas taxes they collect. But increasing some states' share of the money could reduce the share of highway funding for many other states.

Alternatively, it could also raise the bill's $284 billion price tag, trigger a presidential veto and cause states to delay road projects for another year.

The federal highway fund, established in 1956 as a dedicated source of money for the nation's Interstates, collects 18.4 cents for every gallon of gasoline sold in a state. Under a 1998 law, states are guaranteed 90.5 percent of the federal gas taxes collected within their borders. But over the program's nearly 50-year history, some states consistently have gotten the short end of the bargain.

For example, Texas, with 302,000 miles of public roads, paid $288.5 million more in federal gas taxes than it got back for highway construction in 2003. Between 1956 and 2003, the Lone Star State received $5.6 billion less than it paid into the highway fund -- a loss of 13.5 percent.

But Alaska, which has only 14,000 miles of federally funded roads, received $281.8 million more for road projects in 2003 than it paid in gas taxes. Since Alaska became a state in 1959, it has gotten 6.6 times more federal road money than it has contributed in gas taxes.

Since 2003, a coalition of the losers has been lobbying to increase their own share of the federal gas tax money. "This time around, we're pushing for 95 percent," said Tonia Ramirez, a Texas spokeswoman for the States' Highway Alliance for Real Equity.

That has prompted 10 other states and the District of Columbia to rally around the present system. Supporters of the Fair Alliance for Intermodal Reinvestment fear that increasing the minimum guarantee will mean less money for them.

States that get more federal money for roads than they collect say there are good reasons for the imbalance. Mike Barton of the Alaska Department of Transportation said his state remains a sparsely populated wilderness where road-building is expensive and difficult. But Alaska plays a critical role supplying gas and oil for the nation's energy needs.

Formulas for highway funds do not account for truckers or tourists who buy gas in a state where they don't live, said Cheye Calvo, a transportation researcher at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ronald Utt, an economic policy researcher at the Heritage Foundation, argues that the formulas are arcane and have pitted the mostly rich Northeastern states against the less wealthy, faster-growing Southern states. "There is no reason why motorists in Texas, Georgia, and other donor states should be subsidizing the wealthier citizens of Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania," Utt wrote earlier this year.

Congress is still mulling highway funding formulas as it considers reauthorizing the transportation act that expired in 2003, but there are significant hurdles. While many members in the U.S. House and Senate would like to increase the highway money, President George W. Bush (R) has threatened to veto the long overdue bill if it exceeds its current price tag.

However, the bill that passed the House does not increase states' share of the gas taxes, and the issue likely will be discussed in a conference committee, Calvo said. The full Senate has yet to pass the bill.

But time is short as a temporary extension of the existing law expires on May 31. The transportation bill is nearly two years overdue, and any more delays could mean the loss of a second year of road construction for states, Calvo said.

 
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