Highway freedom will save money

Rob Portman
Ohioans are looking for common sense from Washington. At a time when the economy is struggling and state dollars are stretched thin, it’s critical that Washington rise to the challenge by cutting red tape and bureaucracy and removing unnecessary – and expensive – federal mandates it imposes on the states.

As Congress debates the highway bill, there is an opportunity to do just that. State and local governments could save money – and build more roads and bridges – if Washington were to let them.

When Americans fill up their cars and trucks, they pay gas taxes that are sent to Washington. These taxes are funneled into the Highway Trust Fund, which was set up in 1956 to pay for the Interstate Highway System that was basically complete by the 1980s. Washington then has a bureaucracy determine how much of their own gas taxes the various states get back, and how the money gets spent for highway and mass transit projects.

The catch is that once the money is returned to the states, states are required to comply with all sorts of federal mandates. Taxpayers are the ones who foot the bill for the added costs of this bureaucracy and these mandates. It costs states additional money, or existing funds that could go to better use elsewhere. It also costs states time and resources that could go elsewhere.

This decades-old, one-size-fits-all federal approach waters down the hard-earned gas tax dollars of Ohioans.

To take just one example, federal law forces states to spend a portion of their gas taxes on “enhancements.” In the past, some of this funding has gone to transportation museums. That’s right. Museums to honor the transportation of the past – when today’s commuters, and tomorrow’s, deserve better roads with their taxpayer dollars. At a time when Washington has trillion-dollar deficits and $15 trillion in debt, Congress should prioritize core highway projects.

Look no farther than a couple of construction projects in Clinton County near Wilmington, Ohio for a glimpse of how Washington affects transportation projects in Ohio.

Todds Fork, a local stream, is crossed by two roads, Prairie Road and Starbuck Road. For each of the roads, Clinton County built a bridge over Todds Fork. The same firm designed both bridges.

There was one big difference, however. The bridge for Prairie Road was built using federal money, while the bridge for Starbuck Road was built using funds from the Ohio Public Works Commission.

According to Jeff Linkous, the Clinton County engineer, the federally funded bridge cost at least 20 percent more than the state-funded bridge, and took more time from design to bid. The federal project cost more in many areas, including the federal bureaucracy, environmental studies, historical and archaeological studies, right-of-way expenses, and design and review costs.

That’s just one example of the time and money wasted, and inefficiencies created, by federal mandates on states like Ohio. Across the nation, according to the Government Accountability Office in 2008, 39 of 50 states and the District of Columbia have at times avoided certain federal transportation dollars so as not to be burdened by federal mandates.

That’s why I’ve submitted commonsense legislation, as an amendment to the highway bill, which addresses the problem. It gives state transportation departments the opportunity to opt-out of the Highway Trust Fund’s Federal-Aid Highway and Mass Transit programs, along with the federal mandates that come with them. The states still have to rigorously maintain the Interstate System.

Last summer, along with my colleague Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and other senators, I introduced similar legislation. At the time, Jerry Wray, the director of the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), endorsed the idea, writing that “managing our own gas tax dollars on the state level without any federal interference would allow ODOT to make decisions without burdensome federal mandates or laws that come attached with the Highway Trust Fund.” In other words, this legislation will give ODOT the freedom to innovate and implement their transportation priorities as they see fit. We should trust them on that count.

Rising gas prices already take a large enough bite out of the wallets of Ohioans. We don’t need unwise government policies to drive up the price to drive on our highways.

Over the course of his presidency, President Obama has highlighted the importance of maintaining our nation’s transportation infrastructure. Let’s do it right by removing unnecessary bureaucracy and mandates on the states, allowing taxpayer dollars to go further and be used more efficiently.

Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.