Commentary: Should trail development be funded by the federal government?

Commentary
By Russ Phillips

Congress recently returned to Washington and is faced with several critical issues in the coming weeks, among them a Highway Transportation bill.

The Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) uses 2 percent of the federal Highway Account for trail development and other non-highway purposes. For FY 2015 this is $820 million.

Some may consider this an insignificant amount when total federal expenditures are considered. However, it is this thinking that has led to our federal government having an $18.3 trillion national debt. Just like a home budget, priorities must be established.

Trail development should be solely funded by state and local tax dollars, if at all. These levels of government are more accountable and more easily influenced by the citizenry than the national level.

Rails-to-Trails (RtoT), the leading advocate for trails in the nation, has 160,000 members and supporters and is aggressively lobbying for the continuation of the TAP. Forty-four percent of rail-trails in the U.S. have been built with federal support and more than 8,000 miles of former rail corridors “are waiting to be turned into great trails,” according to RtoT. In June a bill was introduced in the House that would have eliminated TAP. RtoT notes, “More than 12,000 supporters emailed your representatives and senators to oppose their bill—within 36 hours of our alert.” In July a Senate amendment was introduced to eliminate the TAP. You can be sure that this advocacy group is being heard on this matter. If you do not support TAP have you let your Senators and Representative know? RtoT has even stated, “…senators seeking to eliminate the program lack a constituency.” Really? I suspect that there are many, given the condition of highways, bridges and other infrastructure, that feel the federal gas tax should not be used for trail development. It is time for them to be heard.

Rail-to-Trails, also referred to as Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC), is a client of two registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

What else is Rails-to-Trails saying?
…”Senate Bill Inadequately Funds Walking, Biking, but Provides Innovative Financing Options” (6/23/15)
…”Senate Passes ‘So-So’ Federal Transportation Bill. What’s Next for Trails?” (8/4/15)
…”Congress on Trails: Next Steps for Transportation Legislation” (9/17/15)

Do your Senators and Representative know your opinion on this matter? Are you part of Rails-to-Trails 160,000 members and supporters or do you feel differently about federal gas tax funds being used regarding trails?

What you need to know about state and federal gas taxes

The main source of transportation funding — federal and state gas taxes — has not kept up with the need IndyStar.com By Maureen Groppe, Star Washington Bureau 9/7/15 WASHINGTON – Federal and state policymakers haven’t figured out how to deal with the fact that the main source of transportation funding — federal and state gas taxes — has not kept up with the need. The details: What is the federal gas tax? The federal government imposes an 18.4 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.4 cents-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel. … Continue reading

Transportation funding at a crossroads in Indiana, U.S.

The state is not collecting enough in gasoline taxes to adequately maintain its roads and bridges IndyStar.com By Maureen Groppe, Star Washington Bureau 9/7/15 WASHINGTON – Are you willing to spend $6.62 more a month in federal gasoline taxes to get the nation’s roads and bridges in good condition? How about spending $5.50 a month more just to keep transportation infrastructure from deteriorating below its current “D” rating? Or would you pay an extra $2.50 a month to get Indiana’s gas tax back to the buying power it had when the … Continue reading

Highway Trust Fund Basics: A Primer on Federal Surface Transportation Spending

(Be sure and read the section “Diversions from Highway Spending.” The entire article with references is here. Highlighting was done by Admin. – Admin.) The Heritage Foundation By Michael Sargent 5/11/15 Abstract The Highway Trust Fund collects and distributes money dedicated to federal highway and transit projects. The trust fund’s current authorization expires at the end of May, two months before the fund is projected to run out of money due to a $13 billion deficit in 2015. The trust fund consistently spends more on highway and transit projects than it … Continue reading

It’s really simple: pay more taxes and/or change priorities

We have an $18+ trillion debt. To chip away at it all that needs to be done is pay more taxes and/or change the priorities. Of course, there are many different government programs that contribute to this debt. As this debt continues to grow, ironically, our country’s deteriorating infrastructure continues to be ignored.

The country’s infrastructure – roads, bridges , seaports – are in need of attention. However, there seems to be little desire to do anything other than “a patch here and a patch there.”

It boils down to how much are we willing to spend (i.e. taxing the people) and what are the priorities? (This isn’t limited to infrastructure!)

Federal gas tax since 1993 has been 18.4 cents/gallon. (more)

Some advocate increasing this tax. Others favor reducing current expenditures. Part of this 18.4 cents is used for the Transportation Alternatives Program that includes the recreational trails program and the safe routes to school program. (more)

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail used $36 million of this 18.4 cents for its creation. (more)

The Transportation Alternatives Program was apportioned for the 2014 fiscal year almost $820 million and this included more than $81.5 million for the Recreational Trails Program. (more, including individual state apportionments)

A state-by-state listing of the 2012 Discretionary Grants with a description and funding amount are listed here. As a suggestion you might want to search “trail” in this information.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in its publication “Trust or Bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund” lists “Fig. 4: Options for Savings Within the Highway Trust Fund” and “Fig. 5: Options for Savings to Offset General Revenue Transfers.” One of the options for savings is to eliminate the Transportation Alternatives Program that includes the Recreational Trails Program. (more)

Paying more taxes or revising priorities becomes complicated when 535 Congressional members and the President must reach a consensus. Help them out by contacting your members. Regardless, we either pay more taxes and/or change the priorities.

Trust or bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund

(On August 8, 2014 H.R 5021 became law supporting transfers of General Funds into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). This provides authorizations for transit, highway and highway safety programs to be funded through the end of May 31, 2015.)

“TRUST OR BUST: FIXING THE HIGHWAY TRUST FUND”
The Committee for A Responsible Federal Budget
6/18/14

…Highway spending has exceeded gas tax and other dedicated revenues regularly over the past decade, and this shortfall will only grow over time. Dedicated revenues currently fund less than three-quarters of total HTF spending, a concern that lawmakers have addressed in recent years by transferring $54 billion of mostly general tax revenue into the HTF (only $15 billion was paid for and partially with a gimmick). In FY2015 alone, highway spending could exceed revenues by nearly $15 billion, and over the next decade that gap will approach $170 billion.

There is broad bipartisan support for funding highways and other transportation infrastructure, which can both help to create jobs in the near-term and enhance long-term economic growth by fostering commerce, communication, tourism, and trade. Unfortunately, policymakers have so far been unable to agree on how to pay for desired levels of highway spending. In the coming months, Congress and the President must identify and agree to a fiscally responsible solution to close the HTF shortfall.

The best approach to address the shortfall would be a long-term highway bill that aligns dedicated revenues with transportation spending. Transferring funds from general revenue into the HTF would be an acceptable alternative if and only if those funds were fully offset with real spending cuts and/or tax increases elsewhere in the budget.Under no circumstance should lawmakers rely on a deficit-financed (or gimmick-financed) general revenue transfer to fund the HTF.

In addition to addressing the funding shortfall facing our highways, policymakers should use the highway bill to ensure better prioritization of funding projects and, importantly, to reform the budgetary treatment of highway spending. The HTF has a unique treatment in the budget, making it immune to the normal forms of budget discipline that ensure policymakers account for the full costs of legislation they pass… (more) (NOTE: Options for savings within the HTF as well as to offset General Revenue transfers are listed later in the article.)

Government grants…There is no “free” money

The Rochester Sentinel
Voice of the People
12/19/14

There is no free money

Federal grants. State grants. It seems like you can’t read the paper without seeing reference to government grants being sought and received. Recently this has been the case for our area: the Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the USDA announced in the Dec. 17th Sentinel, the revitalization of downtown Rochester, the development of the Nickel Plate Trail and many other projects of recent years. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a grant is sought and received for the Times Cinema restoration.

This is not unique to the Fulton County area. Recently the town of Seymour in southern Indiana received a state grant of about $800,000 from the Indiana Department of Transportation to erect a welcome sign on the edge of their community. No doubt the seeking of grants is occurring throughout our country. It is always easier to spend someone else’s money even though we’re fooling ourselves when we think this is the case with government grants.

The issue is not the projects but rather the means of funding them. We send money via a bunch of different taxes to Indianapolis and Washington D.C. and if “lucky” some of it is returned as grants along with a lot of bureaucratic red tape and stipulations to receive the grant and administer it. Our country has amassed a federal debt of more than $18+ trillion. There is no “free” money.

One of the most frequent uses of government grant money is the creation of walking and biking trails. This grant money comes from gas taxes. Yes, tax money for the maintenance and repair of roads, highways and bridges is being diverted to trails. Again, the issue is not the project but how it is funded. A favorite phrase of those who advocate for the grants is “enhancing the quality of life.” Make no mistake, this is a sales pitch.

It is a matter of priorities and when spending your own money, i.e. at the local government level, a mindset of priorities will quickly come to the fore. If it appears to be “free” money, i.e. from the state or federal government, then the concept of “priorities” quickly disappears.

This matter and other Fulton County as well as Indiana and national government topics are being explored at www.myusagovernment.org, a recent project created to inform my fellow citizens.

Russ Phillips