Georgians shouldn’t have to fume in traffic

Atlanta commuters know traffic all too well. According to the latest data, the typical commuter here wastes 51 hours annually — well over a full work week— stuck in traffic. That’s a lot of time spent watching the next car’s bumper slowly inch ahead.

It’s not that Georgians aren’t paying enough in taxes to buy some relief from the congestion. In addition to state fuel taxes and fees, motorists pay an 18.4 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax (or a 24.4 cent per gallon diesel tax). In 2012 (latest data available), Georgians poured $1.4 billion into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) in Washington.

The problem is that, rather than let Georgia transportation officials decide how best to spend those funds, the feds tell states what to do with that money. Moreover, when Washington sends money back to the states, it attaches costly strings that rip off motorists.

Case in point: the $33 million that Washington told Georgia it must divert this year from road and bridge improvement projects to fund nature trails, scenic overlooks, sidewalks, and landscaping. Past recipients of this “transportation alternatives” program include the Saint Simons Lighthouse ($250,000), Gwinnett County’s Southeastern Railway Museum ($500,000), and sidewalks in Fulton County ($1 million). These projects may enjoy tremendous local support, but they are hardly federal priorities. And none of them have anything to do with transportation or relieving traffic congestion. Why, then, should motorists foot the bill?

Yet Congress is poised, once again, to reauthorize this and similarly inappropriate uses of federal fuel taxes in legislation that governs spending on highway, bridge, and transit projects across the country. What makes it more maddening than usual is that lawmakers want to continue the this wasteful practice even though they know the HTF will fall short of what they want to spend by $15 billion in fiscal year 2015. To deal with the “shortfall,” some politicians are calling for higher gas taxes, a new tax on miles driven, or other dodges that amount to budget gimmickry.

But the problem isn’t a “shortfall” in taxing; it’s an overreach in spending. What Congress needs to do is scrutinize where federal fuel tax dollars are going and root out wasteful spending on low-priority, inefficient activities — projects that either lack a federal nexus or don’t benefit the people who are paying the taxes — motorists and truckers who deserve safe, efficient roadways.

Redeploying that $33 million for Georgia to spend on road and bridge improvement projects would be a great place to start. Magnify this reform on a national scale, and billions of dollars annually are freed up for the states to spend improving highways and bridges.

But Congress shouldn’t stop there. It is shortsighted to think that Washington bureaucrats and special interests know Georgia’s transportation challenges and solutions better than Georgia does. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, has introduced a proposal called the Transportation Empowerment Act, which offers a framework for narrowing the federal role in transportation while empowering states and citizens to make their own transportation funding and spending decisions, including tapping into private-sector resources when appropriate.

Atlantans don’t have time to waste stuck in traffic — and they shouldn’t have to. Georgia should band with other states and remind Washington who really should be in the driver’s seat.