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In our opinion: Wasting highway funds

Published: Friday, Sept. 16 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Looking down at the Spanish Fork/Price I-15 exit where the freeway will be closed for 3 nights to place girders for a new bridge. Monday, Feb. 7, 2011 (Stuart Johnson/Deseret News)

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

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The House this week passed a four-month extension of highway funding, which was disappointing. Unless Senate conservatives can find the stomach to stop it, the bill will head to the president soon for his signature.

Perhaps a mere four-month extension ought to give everyone enough time to think clearly about the need for a federal highway program and a federal gas tax that has been misused and abused for decades.

As with so many taxes, the federal gas tax was promised to be temporary when it began. The Eisenhower administration persuaded Congress to pass a 3 cents a gallon tax in 1956 to create the Highway Trust Fund and pay for construction of the interstate highway system. The tax was supposed to last for 16 years, then drop to 1.5 cents in 1972. Today, with the interstate system built out, the tax is 18.4 cents per gallon, and Congress uses the highway fund alternately as a billy club and a convenient pot of money for pushing agendas.

Consider how, through the years, Congress has threatened to withhold highway funding unless states adopt a 55 mph speed limit or enact a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol limit for drunken driving. Efforts have been under way recently to use this same tactic to force states to raise the minimum driving age to 18. The Constitution grants Congress no authority to directly interfere with states in this way, but precious highway funds have become the perfect end-around.

More importantly, Congress has in recent years used highway funds to pay for a host of things with little direct relationship to highways. Most of these push an environmentalist agenda. The Heritage Foundation found that 38 percent of highway funds were spent on these things in 2009, including local sidewalk and beautification projects, bike paths and other necessities for "livable communities." Some states end up contributing far more in gas taxes than they ever receive in return, while others come out as net winners.

Some in Congress have proposed scrapping the federal highway fund and giving road projects back to the states. While that certainly would require an increase in local taxes, it would allow states like Utah to construct their own projects and enact innovative methods without having to run to Washington and beg for permission.

The problem, of course, is that each non-highway recipient of these funds is a special interest, complete with a lobby and dire talking points about how the nation will crumble if money is taken away. The truth is some programs are easier to enact in Washington than in a state capitol, where average people will demand detailed explanations as to why an expenditure is needed.

Congressional conservatives are no-doubt weary after a debt-ceiling showdown that resulted in little of substance. It is past time, however, to wonder why something that was enacted in 1956 for a specific short-term purpose needs to continue as a wide-ranging earmarking boondoggle today.

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