Has Congress mapped a route to transportation funding?

032415 lead illustration atlanta forward Credit Mirza Khushnam S

Credit: Mirza Khushnam

 

Throughout Georgia’s months-long transportation debate, state leaders kept one eye — and often one wagging finger — pointed several hundred miles to the northeast.

Federal money in recent years made up about half of the state’s transportation budget, but lately the numbers have been shrinking. An oft-invoked justification for increasing Georgia’s funding for roads and bridges was to reduce our dependency on Washington, which has grown unpredictable as its spending outstrips gas-tax revenues by billions of dollars a year.

A short-term extension of the current highway funding measure, set to expire May 31, seems all but certain: The issue is caught up in House and Senate efforts to reform the tax code more broadly. So the question I posed to three Republican members of Georgia’s congressional delegation this week is what a longer-term solution might look like, whenever it comes.

“Well, the long-term solution is not raising taxes, and the long-term solution is not continuing a system that doesn’t work,” began Sen. Johnny Isakson. “It’s obvious you need a reform for the entire system in which you raise revenue for the roads. User fees should be a principle underlying that reform. …

“My guiding principle is the (highway) trust fund ought to fund the road construction that you’re doing, and if you’re doing more road construction than it will fund, you ought not to be borrowing the money from China.”

The idea that Congress should play a role in infrastructure is “a fairly bipartisan view,” said Rep. Tom Price of Roswell, who chairs the House budget committee. How to pay for it is a different matter.

“The resources are there if we prioritize correctly,” Price insisted. “What that means is we’ve got to get the federal government out of what it ought not to be doing … to do the things the federal government ought to be doing.”

Congress needs to set priorities within transportation spending, said Rep. Rob Woodall, who represents parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties and serves on the House transportation committee. He said his constituents tell him they want the federal government to focus on things like interstates and let local communities deal with sidewalks.

“It’s not that folks don’t want to build and invest, and it’s not that they don’t want to pay their fair share,” Woodall said, citing last fall’s approval of $200 million in infrastructure bonds by voters in deeply conservative Forsyth County. “They just don’t want to see their dollars wasted, and who can blame them for that?”

Woodall didn’t rule out federal spending on local mass transit systems, but he would limit federal help to those transit projects that are certain to relieve traffic congestion.

“Are we spending federal dollars to build streetcars across this country? Yes,” he said. “Is that doing anything to solve congestion in national corridors? No.”

All three said transportation is one of the voter concerns that hits closest to home.

“We’ve had probably the best roads in the Southeast,” Isakson said of Georgia. “Some of those roads are deteriorating now faster than they used to, because there’s not enough money to go around. And you’re hearing that from constituents — my wife being one of them. Potholes are her pet peeve.”

Reader Comments 0

36 comments
PaulinNH
PaulinNH

What a surprise. Ask one senator and two congressmen question about highway funding and get a bunch of pablum.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Please, please, please somebody tell me why ALL that derive value from the public transportation system should not pay taxes for it. Nobody builds a shopping center in a cornfield with no road access. Why should I as a driver have to subsidize a business that derives great value from public roads? Do any of you not feel it is weird to only talk about a user tax for vehicles when business uses the road to bring customers to their business?

MANGLER
MANGLER

Meanwhile, a look out the window at 5:30 shows me not to even bother going to the car yet.  Perhaps a nice stroll around the office park, or a beer across the street.  Time better spent then my commuting brethren stuck out there.

Caius
Caius

IReportYouWhine#1 5 hours ago

What does isakson mean by "users fees?" Why do I envision a big federal eyeball mounted to my dashboard?

This is probably what it will be.  But first we will need to borrow the money from China to buy the dashboard eyeballs.

Jefferson1776
Jefferson1776

@Caius  They borrow from Americans,  they already owe the SS account and owe it more every day.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

" the long-term solution is not raising taxes" - Isakson hits the low - information voter and conservative base here. Even if the solution that best works is "raise a few more taxes" Isakson can say he was against it. 


"“What that means is we’ve got to get the federal government out of what it ought not to be doing … to do the things the federal government ought to be doing.”" Tom Price hits the low - information voter and conservative base here. Let's just call it "be scared of the Federal Government!!!" argument.


“Are we spending federal dollars to build streetcars across this country? Yes,” “Is that doing anything to solve congestion in national corridors? No.” - Woodall uses an easy target of streetcars to try to reduce funding down to "solve congestion on national corridors."  It's not congestion only that needs to be fixed.  It's long-term maintenance of roads as well as infrastructure upgrades that include transit solutions.  Assisting states and cities in that area is in the best interest of the Feds, but all too often, we see politically strong senators get a huge amount of money flowing to their respective states whereas other states are left without equivalent funds and basically being punished politically. 


Now, how you solve politicians trying to be powerful, that's one I don't see congress being serious about. 

Jefferson1776
Jefferson1776

We have already paid the taxes, only republicans want to trick the public into paying again with user fees. 

bu2
bu2

I'm starting to come around with those who want to significantly reduce the federal role in transportation.


Why should the rest of the country pay for an Atlanta streetcar?  Why should the rest of the country be subsidizing New York state while a geographically huge, booming state like Texas gets less than 90 cents on the dollar back?  Ok, Wyoming needs to be subsidized.  But it would be better if most roads were funded locally. 


The federal dollars have a distorting influence.  Of all the potential projects in Atlanta, why would the streetcar be one that got built?  They also add enormously to the time and cost of the projects.  Those $ spent on federal compliance add no value.  It would be better if that money stayed with the states.


Stick to the interstates and a limited set of US highways.  Do some mass transit, but not from gas taxes.  States have been building projects with 80% federal dollars.  Local share needs to be greater.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

Why do I envision a big federal eyeball mounted to my dashboard?

While I’m all for continuing to use excise taxes on fuel to generate lots of transit revenue, monitoring devices installed on all personal vehicles to determine mileage are a matter of when, not if.

We’ll likely be inoculated against protesting too much, once we realize that most of us have such things reporting our driving behavior to our insurance companies. (no, that hasn't happened yet, but it almost certainly will.) We’ll probably put up as much of a collective protest as we have to having our phone and internet activity being recorded and monitized right now.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

@Kyle_Wingfield @Visual_Cortex

All true. But the tracking itself -- voluntary though it may be -- will be via GPS, and the information will be very useful for a lot of purposes.

And let's face facts, if it's voluntary, I would assume the incentives to volunteer will be pretty generous. You'll have to pay to maintain your privacy, and most won't bother, I don't think.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Visual_Cortex ("Price per mile" might not be the best way to put that. But I think y'all should get what I mean.)

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Visual_Cortex That's probably right. Your price per mile will probably end up being lower if you opt for the low-privacy option. Although if that's true, it could actually be a good thing for transportation funding if more people chose the high-privacy option ...

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Visual_Cortex There's no reason a VMT system has to be intrusive. It could be as simple as allowing people to choose between paying a flat fee, reporting their total mileage traveled for the year, or having their mileage tracked more closely (so that we know which states they are driving in, and thus how much of the fee should be allocated to those states).

MHSmith
MHSmith

@Kyle_Wingfield @Visual_Cortex


I agree totally with your comment Kyle. People will drag-up every phony straw-man in the hay stack to say why the VMT  just can't work. They don't realize how close the VMT came to a vote in the U.S. Senate. I got this little itch under my skin that says the VMT users fee tax is just a wee bit too Libertarian for those who have been riding on the cheap.  


Let naysayers argue until their teeth fall out, cause so far, NONE of them have offered anything better.   

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@Kyle_Wingfield @Visual_Cortex You are so correct in that it need not be complicated, but get real, we are dealing with the Federal Gov here and a Congress beholden to the lobbyist.


The lobbyist will take over writing the thousand page bill, those representing the motor oil business, the tire business, the insurance business, the auto tinting business,and the technical wonks wanting to sell their device.  The envirowackos and  the unions will weigh in, and the Dems will pander for a "Comprehensive" bill that includes a massive new agency, the Vehicle Revenue Service, complete with a huge budget and thousands of new employees.  They will also include plenty of pork for every industry and person negatively impacted and some for those who are just breathing.


Just raise the gas tax and put a fee on extremely gas efficient cars.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Visual_Cortex What about the thing Progressive trumpets to lower your cost for insurance by monitoring your driving habits? They are already here, just waiting to be required by all insurance companies. After all, the use of credit scores to set rates started out small...

Starik
Starik

Let the churches and the nonprofits pay taxes like everybody else.  How much money could we raise from that? 

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

We seem to have no limit on the amount of money we will spend importing, litigating, housing, medicating, pensioning, schooling, buying airline tickets for, and vesting illegal immigrants.  Maybe we could make some effort to discourage the number of new ones arriving daily, and use that money to fix Johnny's wife's pothole problem. 

332-206
332-206

@RafeHollister "...pensioning, schooling, buying airline tickets for, and vesting illegal immigrants."


Rafe believes illegal immigrants receive government pensions?

Have any specific source for that blather, Rafe?

straker
straker

"how to pay for it is a different matter"


An insolvable problem for Republicans in the House and Senate as they MUST first satisfy the demands of their corporate sponsors. 

Jefferson1776
Jefferson1776

Clueless is what Johnny is saying,  he has no plan or clue, he just don't want to pay.

332-206
332-206

No question the solution to federal transportation funding will come from three forward thinking Georgians... 

MANGLER
MANGLER

If you call it a fee instead of a tax, then people will vote for it?  Is that the logic? 

The interesting comment was: “What that means is we’ve got to get the federal government out of what it ought not to be doing"- Any more on what that means?  I have a feeling someone wants to keep trying to gut education, the IRS, and ACA spending.  But hey, if you have an unemployed populous who will die early, that should reduce congestion.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MANGLER The distinction between fee and tax usually comes down to whether one can avoid paying it by avoiding using the service.

MANGLER
MANGLER

@Kyle_Wingfield Hmm.  Alright.  I'll buy that answer.  

But I can still hear the whining of people about the hot lanes being paid for with tax dollars then the fee added on later to use them.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MANGLER And those people usually are forgetting that the road has to be repaved at some point, and the toll revenues can be used for that.

That said, I think the best way to do toll lanes is to build them as new construction rather than conversions. It was probably a mistake for Georgia's first such project to be a conversion, as it's given the concept a bad rap.

MHSmith
MHSmith

Obviously Sen. Isakson is on board  with a VMT.  Rep. Price is off the mark with his the funds are there declarations. Rep Woodall (my Congressman) should get on board with Sen. Isakson and us Kyle and stop the double talk on waste which goes without need be said to a conservative audience.  


It was nice to point out the federal role in this, although many of our local roads excluding the Interstates are federal highways as well as state roads. 


The "user fees" from the Vehicle Mileage Taxes would require a federal and a state "user fee" a.k.a. VMT. Eventually the "user fee"/ VMT is where we are going to end up on this issue. 


Anyways, it would be wise to at least start to set into motion the framework for this "user fee" /VMT system in order to get ahead of the curve or not as far behind as usual. 


Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I am guessing the federal transportation planning director has some kind of qualifications directly related to the job?

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@Wascatlady I thought being progressive friends of Barack and Michelle was qualification enough, based on past appointments.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

if you’re doing more road construction than it will fund, you ought not to be borrowing the money from China.”

Last I checked, Chinese folks hold something like a whopping eight percent of US debt, so I don't really appreciate this Yellow Peril nonsense from "our" Senator.

And I'm really tired of being told we can't have Nice Things because we're "broke" due to the stupidity of people (from both parties) who can't figure out politically how to ask Americans to pay more in taxes in the first place.

EliasDenny
EliasDenny

Deep wrong thinking by our friends in Washington.

IReportYouWhine#1
IReportYouWhine#1

What does isakson mean by "users fees?" Why do I envision a big federal eyeball mounted to my dashboard?