Chief among his issues in the current ‘jobs’ bill is the claim that the bill is needed to repair our roads and bridges which he claims are ‘falling down’ and in need of desperate repair. Most analysts agree that this is largely untrue, but lets analyze this a bit further and give the President the benefit of the doubt—let’s say simply for argument’s sake that it IS true and a lot of roads and bridges are in serious need of repair.
If they are, it’s the fault of the government in the first place—namely he and his worshippers of politically correct ideas in the halls of Congress.
First off, the vast majority of roads and bridges in the United States are under the jurisdiction of the state governments—not the federal government which is responsible for the interstate highway system.
Anything other than that system and some connecting roads, are the responsibility of the state government where you live, and are paid for by local fuel taxes, vehicle registration and ownership fees, and vehicle taxes. I’ll get back to this in a minute.
Of the federal system of roads and bridges, we pay a portion of a gallon of gas into the system known as the federal fuel tax. Back when the federal government built the federal highway system a fuel tax excise system (the National Highway Trust Fund) was added to every gallon of gasoline sold in order to fund the BUILDING of the highway system. Once the system was mostly completed, the theory was that the fund would be mostly phased out, and taxes would be reduced with a small portion going to maintain roads and bridges that were designed to last 50-100 years or more.
However under Jimmy Carter (my parent’s generation version of Barack Obama) the federal fuel tax was not phased out and instead increased, and a bill was passed to maintain the fuel tax ad infinitum to ‘repair and rebuild and expand our necessary federal highway system’. The federal fuel tax is one of the lower taxes in comparison to foreign nations (approximately 18-24 cents per gallon depending on fuel type) but one of the highest in terms of percentage compared to the cost of the fuel. While other nations use fuel taxes to support government and is placed into the general fund, ours is a bit different.
Originally, the tax was intended to go 100% to the maintenance of federal roads and bridges in the U.S. Unfortunately though, over the years, beginning primarily with Carter (and increased again under Clinton in 1993) more and more funds from the Highway Trust Fund are no longer being used to maintain roads, but instead are now being earmarked for other pet projects. In 2007, Mary Peters, then head of the Federal DOT said (in a PBS interview):
I think Americans would be shocked to learn that only about 60 percent of the gas tax money that they pay today actually goes into highway and bridge construction. Much of it goes in many, many other areas.
It was after that interview in 2007 (in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse), that the government also passed a 188 billion dollars infrastructure spending bill to ‘repair those bridges and roads that are falling down’—and this was after a similar 2005 spending bill that spent 240 billion!
Worse, in the last ‘jobs’ and stimulus package the US Congress, under the direction of then Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leader Harry Reid, tacked on HR Bill 3 which devoted federal fuel tax money to small pet projects (see The American Way) . HR 3 diverted over 23 billion dollars of the 41 billion dollar highway fund, more than 50% of the fund, to programs like the Safe Routes to Schools program designed “to enable and encourage children, including those with disabilities, to walk and bicycle to school. . . encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle from an early age.” A new Transit in the Parks program would be also be established “to improve visitor mobility and enjoyment” inside national parks. In that bill were a number of new entitlements and programs such as:
- $3,000,000 to renovate and expand the National Packard Museum;
- $3,000,000 for the National Infantry Museum Transportation Network;
- $1,705,000 to reconstruct Union Station in North Canaan, Connecticut and establish a transportation museum;
- $1,000,000 to construct the Transportation and Heritage Museum in Townsend, Tennessee;
- $500,000 to Rehabilitate and Redesign the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, NY and
- $250,000 for the Issaquah Valley Trolley Project
Large portions of the highway trust fund are also diverted to things like sensitivity training at the DOT, local mass transit systems, and public works projects that serve little except to create more debt for the nation, taking large amounts of money away from what the tax was originally intended for—repairing bridges and roads.
As for fixing the local bridges and roads don’t hold your breath. The fees you pay for registration of vehicles and driver’s license fees? By some estimates as much as 85% of them go back to paying the salaries and costs of maintaining a department of motor vehicles. Self indulgence indeed.
Actually, when you think about it, with leadership like this it is amazing that our roads and bridges AREN’T falling down.