Highway Funding 101

Ohio Contractors Association President Chris Runyan comments on the permissible uses of federal funds, general revenue fund taxes vs. user fees and the gas tax. 

Since being motivated by a recent trip to Washington, D.C. to discuss federal transportation funding with our state’s congressional delegation and hearing all kinds of tantalizing factoids, let’s turn this column into a brief civics quiz.

Question #1 – In our nation’s Constitution, what are the few activities for which federal funds are expressly named as permissible expenditures?

I’ll bet most of you named defense right away.  Establishing post offices is another.  Anticipating my bias, you could guess the third – the construction of roads.  Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7 states that taxes collected can be used for the construction of what were then known as “post roads.”  These were intended to connect post offices for the purposes of communication.

Many would like to see the federal government out of the road building business and devolve that function to the state level of government and below.  Our founding fathers saw the need for a federal role in roads and I would argue that need remains.

I will quickly acquiesce to the viewpoint that the role of the federal government has expanded way beyond what may be defined as a functional or efficient role.  There are a number of reasons why the federal Highway Trust Fund is going broke.  Chief among those reasons is that it is paying for more things than its creators ever envisioned it would pay for.  One could legitimately ask oneself if a bridge on a two-lane country road is a federal transportation priority.  Is a bicycle path across town a federal transportation priority?  Is a transit bus or a local transit system a federal transportation priority?  Don’t get me wrong – each of these is a localized transportation priority; but, are they federal transportation priorities?  What I’m suggesting is that if our nation’s leaders want to fund all of these things beyond what the original intention of the Highway Trust Fund was established for, then maybe they had better be willing to authorize the amount of funds necessary to do the job instead of taking no action to increase the revenue stream for the past 20 years.  Instead of taking care of all of it well, we’re not able to take care of any of it well.

Read the full text of Mr. Runyan’s article here.

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