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The Case Against Transportation Devolution: A Conservative Perspective; Paper Refutes the Devolution Myths


This is a critically important time for federal transportation programs. While many experts argue that we must not only maintain, but substantially increase federal investment in transportation infrastructure, some advocates are now calling for the opposite approach—“devolution” of transportation programs to the states, either in part or in full.

This paper assesses those arguments from a conservative perspective and makes the case for continuing the current cooperative federal-state regime. Although devolution may seem superficially appealing, it would conflict with the nation’s long and unbroken history of federal transportation investment, balkanize the nation’s transportation networks, cause a substantial drag on the economy and bring about a host of other serious problems. …

The following excerpt refutes the arguments most commonly made in support of devolution.

Myth #1: The Interstate Highway System is complete so there’s nothing left for the federal government to do.

This assertion is wrong for two reasons. First, there is still a need for a strong federal role in ensuring that the Interstate Highway System achieves a state of good repair and has sufficient capacity to meet future challenges. … Construction of the IHS began nearly 60 years ago, and many of the nation’s bridges and highways are past or nearing the end of their life span. …

Similar problems are plaguing transit systems; a 2004 survey revealed that rail transit vehicles are 20 years old on average and that a majority of the nation’s urban rail passenger stations are in substandard condition. In short, considerable maintenance needs exist that require immediate attention. That order grows even taller when one factors in the capacity upgrades that are necessary to keep pace with population growth and rising overseas competition.

Second, the federal interest in surface transportation goes beyond the IHS. … [T]he 25 percent of the nation’s roads that are designated as federal-aid highways are eligible for federal funding. At the heart of this network is the National Highway System, which carries and will continue to carry a large percentage of the nation’s highway ­traffic and serves strategic, economic and trade ­priorities … .

Myth #2: Devolution will result in “less traffic and more time enjoying life.”

… It is highly unlikely that states would be able politically to increase revenues sufficient to replace current federal assistance. States would also have a more difficult time making the kind of long-term funding commitments for major improvements that are possible under current law.

The collective effect of these limitations would lead to slower and less new project construction, less scheduled maintenance and thus more time spent in traffic and less time enjoying life. The effect would be particularly severe for transit systems, since most states have constitutional or statutory provisions that prohibit use of state transportation funds for transit purposes.

Myth #3: Current law prevents states and localities from managing their own transportation policies.

…[S]tates are the prime movers under the current transportation regime. … In all, 88 percent of current federal transportation funding passes through to states and MPOs via formula allocations.

Additionally, states oversee the contracting and construction processes for federal-aid projects and have a free hand under federal law to shape their surface transportation plans and statewide transportation improvement programs as they choose. Thus, contrary to devolution supporters, the federal government currently has a limited hand in administering transportation programs funded with HTF dollars.

Myth #4: Devolution will result in less “pork” and more merit-selection.

MAP-21, the current federal transportation statute, contains zero earmarks. Logically, it is impossible for state legislatures to do better than that. …

[S]tate legislatures generally have an excellent track record of using transportation funds efficiently, [but] the point remains: Devolution will not put an end to earmarks or reduce the number of them. Complicating matters further, many states have no legal mechanism to ensure that transportation funds are used solely for transportation.

Myth #5: Devolution will allow “more projects to be completed at a lower cost” and “would actually add dollars available for road construction.”

… [D]evolution would lead to less funding nationwide for highway and transit projects (indeed, a lot less for transit projects) than current federal law provides. Some states would find it impossible to increase their gasoline taxes by enough to offset the loss of federal funds, while others would be unable to borrow or spend enough to complete major projects and still others would be barred by the state constitution from spending the money they do have on transit. …

Finally, while it is true that devolution might theoretically allow “more projects to be completed,” that means nothing if the projects in question are locally oriented instead of regionally and nationally significant freeway lanes and bridge repairs. When it comes to the nation’s transportation needs, quantity and quality both matter in ways devolution advocates fail to account for.

Three salient conclusions emerge from the foregoing analysis.

First, the Constitution expressly grants Congress the power to invest in transportation infrastructure and Congress has consistently carried out that responsibility from the time of the founding through the current day. Hence, devolution would mark a sharp break from ­tradition rather than a return to it.

Second, the data makes clear that robust, interconnected and modern transportation networks are essential to America’s prosperity. Our transportation networks are under great strain today due to age and insufficient capacity, and those pressures will grow substantially in the decades ahead as our population grows and as competition from foreign nations stiffens. Current federal transportation programs respond to those challenges by channeling the overwhelming majority of funding to the most strategically important corridors and by ensuring that and local governments play a vital role in administering federal-aid programs.

Third, devolving federal transportation programs, either in whole or in part, would make matters worse by reducing the amount of funding available for rehabilitation and construction projects, eliminating transit options and encouraging states to pursue parochial goals rather than national priorities.

Together, those changes would result in increased highway congestion and reduced commuter choice. And, while devolution would cut the federal fuel tax, it would inevitably result in corresponding (and significant) tax increases at the state level. In short, the changes devolution would bring about—reduced economic competitiveness, increased ­traffic congestion and new tax increases—are not hallmarks [of] good government from a conservative perspective.

This “Commentary” is based on a paper, The Case Against Transportation Devo­lution: A Conservative Perspective, from the Free Congress Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research and education organization. Used and excerpted with permission. Jack Schenendorf, of counsel, Covington & ­Burling LLP, concentrates on transportation and legislation. He served on the staff of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure for nearly 25 years.

This "Commentary" section features different points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes and views that affect public transportation.
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