Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tribune Commentary today: Karen Jaroch: A way to get the feds out of our transportation decisions

Transportation is a red hot issue today. It is sizzling at the local level with the GoHillsborough campaign and at the national level as Congress struggles to re-authorize a federal highway bill. 

Today's commentary in the Tribune by Karen Jaroch, Vice-Chair of HART, is relevant to both so we are re-posting it on the Eye. 

Karen Jaroch: A way to get the feds out of our transportation decisions

Special to The Tampa Tribune
Published: July 28, 2015

With all the talk about raising gas taxes, what if you could pay less at the pump? With passage of H.R. 2716 — the Transportation Empowerment Act — this could be possible.

H.R. 2716 would devolve the responsibility for our surface transportation programs (including transit) to the states by incrementally decreasing the federal gas tax over five years from 18.3 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon. That reduction would empower the states to fund and manage it — not politicians and Washington bureaucrats.

The bill was filed by Florida’s U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and cosponsored by Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, with Sen. Marco Rubio co-sponsoring the bill’s twin in the Senate. Well-heeled lobbyists and those in Congress who would see their power base decline are in opposition. Unfortunately, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is in that camp, as she recently characterized the bill as “radical” and “a burden to the states” in a constituent letter.

The feds fund roughly 30 percent of Florida’s transportation infrastructure; however, the costly regulations, red tape and strings they tack on permeate the process almost universally.

As a board member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), I’ve witnessed the agency routinely shackled by federal handcuffs that are common when accepting federal funds. H.R. 2716 would wrest control from D.C. bureaucrats and politicians in 49 other states that have never commuted on our streets and roads and instead empower state and local agencies like HART that are better positioned to make these decisions.

The Transportation Construction Coalition recently published an analysis of FHWA and state tax data by Drs. Alison Black and William Buechner, and they calculated the minimum gas tax “increase” needed to replace the apportionment “loss” for each state under H.R. 271. They found that Florida, a donor state, could exchange the federal 18.3 cent/gal tax with a lower tax of 11.5 cent/gal and revenues into Florida would be unchanged. This underscores the unfairness to Florida taxpayers whose tax dollars are siphoned off to states like Georgia, New York and California.

If Florida opted to keep the rate constant, it would see a sizable increase into transportation coffers without paying a penny more at the pump. This is a “burden” many Floridians stuck in traffic would gladly undertake.

Rep. Castor further claimed in her letter that devolution to the states would mean uncertainty to agencies charged with maintaining our highways and mass transit facilities. To the contrary, there is no certainty in the current process.

The current process is hobbled and patched with continuing resolutions expressed in months rather than years. Indeed, we’re operating now under a two-month continuing resolution with no guarantee when or if HART will get its remaining fiscal year 2015 allotment. HART has fiscally prudent policies, so our operating reserves can smooth over a temporary cash flow disruption, but many agencies cannot.

The federal highway bill in the Senate was tainted Friday morning with an amendment by Senate President Mitch McConnell to re-authorize the controversial Export-Import bank. This politically charged maneuver is payola for Sen Maria Cantwell’s vote switch on last month’s trade bill. This back-room deal-making is standard practice in D.C. A new state-led process would be controlled entirely by Floridians and would be absent the horse trading and infighting between 49 other states, two houses of Congress, a president of a different party and a myriad of federal agencies.

Under a state-led process, FDOT would figure prominently. Currently FDOT requires HART to submit a 10-year plan so it can be rolled into its larger transportation plans. HART would have more certainty and stability with a 10-year window rather than the schizophrenic process we have now that relies on the whims of Congress and whether an influential member of Congress resides in our district or not.

H.R. 2716 would allow increased revenues and certainty to Florida agencies charged with overseeing our transportation facilities without raising the overall taxes paid at the pump. This bill gets rid of the federal middle man and associated red tape, resulting in lower operating costs and increased productivity.

Call your House representative today and urge them to co-sponsor the Transportation Empowerment Act (H.R. 2716).

Karen Jaroch is a licensed professional engineer in Florida, the vice chair of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency, and Florida grassroots manager for Heritage Action for America.

Time for Congress to think outside the box to better optimize and more efficiently spend our gas taxes and empower states to decide their own unique transportation solutions. 

Please call your House Representative today to co-sponsor the Transportation Empowerment Act, bill H.R. 2716.

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