Devolving Highway Funding

The Trump administration’s recent proposal on infrastructure stressed federalism. It said that the “federal government now acts as a complicated, costly middleman between the collection of revenue and the expenditure of those funds by states and localities. Put simply, the administration will be exploring whether this arrangement still makes sense, or whether transferring additional [infrastructure] responsibilities to the states is appropriate.”

Indeed, the federal-middleman arrangement does not make sense. With regard to highways, federal funds go not just to the 47,000-mile interstate highway system (IHS), but also to the vast 3.9 million mile “federal-aid highway system.” But there are few advantages in federal funding over state funding for most the nation’s highways, which are owned by the states and mainly serve state-local needs.

As such, there have been many proposals to devolve at least the non-IHS activities to the states. In such “turnback” proposals, the federal government would cut its highway spending and its gas tax, and allow states to fill the void.

The turnback idea has been around awhile. A major 1987 study by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) proposed devolving highway funding except for IHS funding to the states. The ACIR was led by a bipartisan mix of federal, state, and local elected officials, and was known for its top-notch staff experts.

Thirty years later, the ACIR report contains sound advice for today’s policymakers. Here are some excerpts:

The Commission concludes that a devolution of non-Interstate highway responsibilities and revenue sources to the states is a worthwhile goal and an appropriate step toward restoring a better balance of authority and accountability in the federal system (page 2).

It is the sense of the Commission that the Congress should move toward the goal of repealing all highway and bridge programs that are financed from the federal Highway Trust Fund, except for: (1) the Interstate highway system, (2) the portion of the bridge program that serves the Interstate system, (3) the emergency relief highway program, and (4) the federal lands highway program. The Commission urges that the Congress simultaneously relinquish an adequate share of the federal excise tax on gasoline—about 7 cents of the federal tax on motor fuel plus an additional 1 cent for a grant based on lane mileage—to finance the above programs (page 2). [Note: the federal gas tax at the time was just 9.1 cents per gallon].

With state and local governments freed from federal requirements, some of which are unsuitable and expensive, turnbacks offer the possibility of more flexible, more efficient, and more responsive financing of those roads that are of predominantly state or local concern. Investment in highways could be matched more closely to travel demand and to the benefits received by the communities served by those roads (page 3).

Highway turnbacks potentially can add both certainty and flexibility—as well as efficiency and accountability—to the financing of the nation’s transportation infrastructure as well as to the design and operation of both new and modernized roads (page 4).

In time, federal requirements and sanctions have accumulated, which have limited state and local governments’ flexibility in road construction and operation, have restricted these governments’ ability to address specific transportation needs, and have probably increased the cost and time needed for road improvements … The design standards required for receiving federal road grants may often be higher than those actually employed for roads built with state or local funds alone. The result can be that some federally subsidized highways are “gold-plated,” that is, built more lavishly than would be the case if state and local governments made the tradeoffs involved in highway plans and financed their choices by taxes levied on their own constituents (page 11).

[Federal highway regulations] may intrude the most broadly upon the choices of state-local governments and citizens. Examples include the rule that federally aided projects be preceded by an environmental analysis and the Davis-Bacon requirement to pay union wage rates, or the equivalent. The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that the Davis-Bacon requirement added between $293 and $586 million to road costs in FY 1986 (page 12).

The federal restriction on state and local road choices occurs not solely because federal standards are high, but because they tend to be inflexible, inappropriate to circumstances that vary from place to place, and more responsive to national interest groups than to the users of specific highways (page 13).

There is “fiscal equivalence” when the same political community—the same jurisdiction—finances a governmental program, is responsible for its operation, and receives the benefits of that program … The tie between taxing and spending promotes efficiency and careful choices, whether spending levels are high or low. Because various areas’ highway needs and preferences are so different, a nationally uniform program cannot tailor taxing and spending to each other, as state and local programs can (page 22).

With the Interstate system used for long-distance travel, most of the benefits of other federally aided roads are contained within state boundaries. These non-Interstate, federally aided roads should be considered for turnback. Absent federal funding, there is reason to believe that state-local responsibility for the devolved highways would not impair nationwide mobility or interstate commerce. Devolution would move toward “fiscal equivalence.” The same jurisdiction that finances a set of roads will benefit from them. Thus highway spending and highway services would be more closely linked than is presently the case. Efficiency would be enhanced as would political, fiscal, and program accountability (page 48).

The diverse goals and constituencies served by the federal highway program has led to a complex operation and has engendered controversy over the program’s procedures and allocation formulas … Devolution … would sharpen goals and priorities (page 48).

The ACIR report (“Devolving Selected Federal-Aid Highway Programs and Revenue Bases: A Critical Appraisal”) is here.