States get back more than they put into Highway Trust Fund, GAO report says

The belief that states send more tax revenue to Washington than they get back to build roads, bridges and transit systems is not true, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In fact, the GAO said in a report released Wednesday, from 2005 to 2009 states received more from the federal government than they contributed to the repository for proceeds of the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gas tax.

“Every state received more funding for highway programs than they contributed to the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund,” the GAO report said.

That last issue is the rub: With cars getting far more miles to the gallon than ever before, gas tax revenue has dipped sharply and is projected to continue a steady decline. The report said Congress has dipped into general tax revenue to the tune of almost $30 billion since fiscal 2008 to meet funding demands that once were covered by the Highway Trust Fund.

The GAO generated the report at the request of Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.

“This GAO report confirms that Congress should be working toward crafting a surface transportation bill that meets the needs of a 21st century national transportation system,” Rahall said.

As Congress ponders passage of the first long-term highway spending program since the last one expired in 2009, what to do about that gap between gas tax revenue and the need to fund transportation is the multibillion-dollar question.

When Republicans captured control of the House this year, they approved a mandate that transportation spending had to be curtailed to match Highway Trust Fund revenue.

Last month, the House leadership reconsidered the path that would have limited annual spending to $35 billion, a reduction of 25 to 30 percent below current levels.

“That’s a monumental change,” said Rep. John L. Mica (R.-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “The Republicans have gone from $35 billion, only from the trust fund, to now be willing to fully fund transportation.”

Mica said the Republicans now support a six-year spending plan that would maintain funding at or above current levels, an overall cost of roughly $275 billion. To achieve that, he said, they must find $6 billion to $10 billion more per year, “depending how you calculate it.”

“What we’ve been doing in the last few weeks since we made that decision is looking for the money,” Mica said. House Speaker John A. Boehner “suggested looking at some energy revenues, and basically everything’s on the table except a gas tax increase.”

Mica said Boehner (R-Ohio) has contemplated increasing oil “wellhead” revenue to avoid hiking taxes at the gas pump.

Both Mica and the Democrats who control the Senate have outlined plans for long-term transportation funding that is considered vital by state officials who need multiyear commitments before they launch major highway or transit projects. The Senate has proposed a two-year bill that would allocate about $54 billion per year.

“We view this as our jobs bill,” said Mica, who on Wednesday declared President Obama’s jobs bill dead on arrival in the House. “And if you look at it, it’s really the fastest way to put people to work. They estimate that for every billion dollars, the low estimates are 25,000 jobs up to 35,000 jobs.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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