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Devolution: Impractical and Unviable at Best

By Ed Wytkind

The weather’s getting warmer, and with that we’re flashing back to last summer in more ways than one: once again, we’re just two and a half months out from watching the Highway Trust Fund go bankrupt.

The last short-term extension, which Congress passed last August, will keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent until May 31st of this year. At that point, transit and highway systems across the country will find themselves without much-needed funding.

Instead of finding ways to meet our massive surface transportation needs and support good jobs in this sector, some members of Congress and extreme conservative groups have repeatedly put forth distractions like the so-called “devolution” proposal, which would dissolve the federal gas tax and leave states and local governments to raise revenue and plan an interstate system.

But this approach is completely blind to the realities of our complex and multimodal system. As we pointed out in our recent policy statement, devolution would create a patchwork system of state plans and revenue agendas, one incapable of meeting the multimodal demands of a 21st century economy.

The Transportation Construction Coalition reported this month that devolution would force states to raise their gas taxes by an average of 23.5 cents per gallon just to maintain their current levels of highway, bridge, and transit investment. Some states, including Montana, Vermont, and Rhode Island, would be looking at hikes in excess of 40 cents per gallon, and Alaskans would be looking at a full dollar increase.

This is not lost on the governors and local officials who would be forced to pay the cost. This week at a hearing on surface transportation funding, state officials met with Congress to explain the need for a strong surface transportation reauthorization bill. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory reminded Congress that “One of our country’s biggest challenges … is connecting economic regions with other regions that aren’t faring as well in this recovery.” Hodgepodge planning resulting from devolution, he added, will leave “major segments of our transportation system in turmoil.”

Many in Congress are opposed to devolution, too: at that same hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, said of this misguided proposal, “I just want to put a nail in the coffin, a stake through the heart, and garlic around the neck.”

And last month, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster put it simply, stating, “it won’t work, quite frankly.” Even Senator James Inhofe, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who was once a proponent of devolution, recently explained that he had changed his tune: “Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution plainly says what the federal government is supposed to do: defending America and building roads and bridges. This is our responsibility; what we’re supposed to be doing.”

So it continues to be a mystery to me that some conservatives continue to push this hare-brained scheme. With our nation’s transportation system – the very backbone of our economy – at risk, we don’t have time to waste. As American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials President John Cox pointed out, many states, including “Tennessee, Arkansas, and … Wyoming have already postponed multiple projects ranging from $28 million in Wyoming to $400 million in Tennessee because of the uncertainty in federal funding.”

That’s money that should be spent maintaining our vital surface transportation system and creating and sustaining thousands of jobs to boot. It’s time to put devolution and other unrealistic ideas to rest and to find an effective long-term funding solution.

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