GAO: Highway Fund an Even Deal

WASHINGTON — A new study released this week by the Government Accountability Office shows that nearly all states have gotten back at least as much money as they contributed to the federal highway trust fund — a revelation that contradicts some lawmakers’ claims that certain states are subsidizing others’ highway and bridge costs under the current system.

More funding was authorized and portioned out to states than was collected from them during fiscal 2005 through 2008, the latest year for which data are available, the GAO said.

That is partly because Congress has supplemented the fund with almost $30 billion of general revenue during recent periods when the fund has neared insolvency.

Under the current system, the federal government imposes an 18.4-cent tax on gasoline, which provides a significant amount of the trust fund revenue.

Revenue also comes from diesel fuel taxes and other vehicle-related fees.

States are reimbursed for certain transportation-project costs from the highway trust fund. They also can impose their own gasoline taxes, separate from the federal tax.

The current transportation law includes an “equity bonus” that guarantees a minimum return to states; nearly all received that bonus, with about half of them receiving a significant bonus of at least 25% over the core funding amount, the GAO found.

Some members of Congress have complained that the ­system unfairly relies on “donor” states — generally larger, more rural, driving-oriented states such as Texas — to foot the bill for transportation projects in “donee” states that provide fewer revenues to the fund.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., has pushed for legislation that would allow states to opt out of the highway trust fund system, claiming that donor states are unfairly burdened by it.

A spokesperson for Hutchison could not be reached for comment.

Such a discrepancy could appear to be the case, but in fact nearly every state got back more than its drivers contributed during the years studied, the GAO said.

“I have long believed that a federal surface transportation program should focus less on the 'donor’ and 'donee’ debate and more on the needs of a national system,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., who requested the study along with Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the highways and transit subcommittee.

The GAO report “provides a consistent set of figures and a better understanding of how federal-aid highway funding is distributed among states [and] should help inform the discussion as we continue to work toward the next surface transportation authorization act,” Oberstar said.

The only exception to the GAO’s finding was Texas, which received slightly less than $1 — 99.7 cents — for every dollar its highway users paid into the system. Other states’ returns-per-dollar ranged from $1.02 for Arizona and Indiana to $5.63 for the District of ­Columbia.

“In addition, all states, including Texas, received more funding than their highway users contributed during both fiscal years 2007 and 2008,” the report added. “In effect, almost every state was a donee state during the first four years” of the current transportation law.

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