Gathering Place

Ronald Fraser

Hawaii should say ‘no’
to federal highway barons

In 1758 philosopher David Hume wrote: "Nothing appears more surprising ... than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers."

Today Hume surely would marvel at how easily each year a few highway barons on Capitol Hill, with help from like-minded special interest groups, collect tens of millions of dollars from Hawaii motorists, then parcel out highway funds to Honolulu with all kinds of costly strings attached.

Authority for the federal highway program expires this month. But the new authorization winding its way through Congress to extend the program six more years does not fairly address an issue costing American motorists over $20 billion each year: What will happen to the federal gas tax?

Most members of Congress simply assume the federal tax either will stay where it is, at 18.4 cents per gallon, or go up. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, of course, is lobbying hard to increase this flood of taxpayers' money with a two-cent-per-gallon federal tax hike in each of the next six years. And Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) goes even further: He recently proposed raising the tax to 33 cents per gallon over six years -- a whopping 79 percent increase.

But there is another option. Last year Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) offered a bill to return all but two cents of the 18.4 cents federal gas tax to the states in the form of a block grant. Under Inhofe's plan, Uncle Sam's take would have been only $7 million in 2001 instead of the $66 million Hawaii motorists actually paid into the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

Right there, in the Congressional Record for August 1, 2002, Inhofe says his bill "restores to states and local communities the ability to make their own transportation decisions without the interference of Washington. ... I have long believed that the best decisions are those made at the local level. Unfortunately many of the transportation choices made by cities and states are governed by federal rules and regulations. This bill returns to states the responsibility and resources to make their own transportation decisions."

The two-cent federal tax would be enough to maintain the Interstate system, build roads on federal lands, address highway-safety issues and conduct some research.

So why haven't Hawaii's two U.S. senators and Governor Lingle, along with elected officials from other states, rallied around Inhofe's proposal to demand its passage this year? Why would Hawaii's governor and legislators resign their own self-interests and welcome Washington's intrusion into their affairs?

One answer goes like this: The federal government is keen on launching programs. Special interest groups are equally skilled at capturing federal programs and tax streams and making sure they grow over time. And the taxpayers are all but forgotten.

Members of Congress also keep excessive federal gas taxes flowing through Washington for selfish reasons. Each year, appropriations committee members skim millions of dollars from the Federal Highway Trust Fund for pet projects back home.

Egos also play a role. For example, signs along the federally funded I-99 in central Pennsylvania proclaim the road "Bud Shuster Highway." Former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA), you may have guessed, personally channeled gas-tax money into the state to build the road. Under Inhofe's plan, highway signs would honor state and local officials, not highway barons in the U.S. Congress.

Road building is traditionally a state and local responsibility. The 41,000-mile Interstate building era, a one-time exception, was declared completed in 1991. But Congress forgot to turn off the federal tax spigot used to build the system. Since then, federal gas taxes have gone up and new ways to spend the tax have been found. In fact, a recent Heritage Foundation report found that only 61 percent of the federal gas taxes sent to Washington are used to build and maintain roads.

As the U.S. Congress gears up to meet the Sept. 30 deadline, this is a fine time for Hawaii motorists to contact their Washington representatives and ask why the Inhofe proposal isn't yet part of this year's highway bill.

Ronald Fraser, PhD., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. He can be reached at


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