When President Bush unveiled his five-year, $105 billion plan for the nation's highways last February, the proposal drew criticism for its neglect of urban transit systems. The U.S. Senate is now offering its own version that corrects that problem and does much more besides.
Under the Bush budget, most money would go into road repairs and upkeep of the 44,328-mile interstate freeway system, rather than new road construction. And states would be given more say in spending the money. Those are good moves.The Senate proposal would keep those approaches but would vastly expand the ability of states to decide how to spend the funds, including making major transfers of highway cash into support of transit systems.
Given the need to cut down on auto traffic in urban areas to reduce gasoline consumption, traffic jams and pollution, the emphasis on transit systems is especially welcome.
The greater flexibility allowed under the Senate measure would benefit Utah and its efforts to build a light-rail system along the Wasatch Front, while still allowing improvements to congested sections of I-15.
Some highway groups oppose the Senate plan, complaining that it reduces the federal role to that of a caretaker for the interstate system while granting states money with no strings attached.
Yet that is not all bad. Utah has not always fared well in the allocation of federal highway funds. Utah - and other states - know their needs better than Washington, D.C., does. And as a general rule, states do a better job of handling money than the federal government.
Under the Senate program, federal officials would still monitor states to make sure they kept the interstate system in good condition, but the balance of the allocations from the highway trust fund could be used to build or repair other roads, construct transit systems, repair or paint bridges, and even build bicycle racks. Each state could tailor the funds to its own perceived needs.
Such an approach has much to recommend it. However, the Senate plan could run into trouble in the House, where some members think they might get bigger federally financed hometown projects under the Bush proposal. The president's plan would expand a 150,000-mile system of "highways of national significance."
The Senate plan would discard the "system" approach that has guided federal financing of road networks for the past 70 years. Under the "system" ideal, states had to meet federal design and engineering guidelines and had little flexibility in project spending.
Clearly, Utah and other states would be better served if they had more choice in spending transportation funds. The Senate program deserves to carry the day.