Congress came to town today, as House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., headlined a roundtable discussion at Georgia Tech about transportation infrastructure in and beyond our region. Shuster offered a preview of his thinking in an op-ed in Tuesday's AJC , which pushed back on the idea, popular among some Republicans, that the federal government should devolve funding and authority for transportation back to the states:
"(S)tates don't want the federal responsibility of providing for a national infrastructure system to be eliminated and thrust solely upon them. In fact, they have made clear that severing this partnership with the federal government would be fundamentally unworkable."
Shuster's op-ed, which you can read in full here , might seem a little awkward, given that a member of Georgia's congressional delegation, Republican Tom Graves of Ranger, previously introduced a bill that would have enacted such a devolution of federal power. And yet, Graves was one of three congressmen on today's panel. What gives?
Well, there might not be as much daylight between Shuster and Graves -- and between their respective lines of thinking -- as it first appears. The main thrust of Graves' argument, which I mentioned in a column back in December 2013 , is that federal regulations and cost-sharing were depriving Georgia of some $185 million annually in gas taxes paid here but not used for roads here.
In an interview yesterday shortly after he arrived in Atlanta, Shuster said he wants to tackle some of the same problems, albeit without a formal devolution of taxing and planning power:
"That's something we're looking at: Let's get (federal transportation funding) out there faster, let's get it out there with less red tape, less strings attached, so that states can go about the business of building roads. ... And refocusing those dollars on these freight corridors that run through virtually every single state, and make sure those dollars are going to that effort instead of all kinds of different things. One of the things we did in the last (transportation funding and authorization bill) MAP-21 was allowing the states to opt in to a program that allows them to do the ... federal environmental study. They have to use the same federal study, but they can do it themselves. California has had it for several months, Texas for a couple of months, and Florida is just on the verge of getting it. And all three of those states, DOTs that I spoke to, all believe that that's going to save them a significant amount of time, because they have a real interest in getting things done. And if it saves them time, it's going to save them money. … Those are the kinds of things we want to build on. We want to make sure that the agencies are doing those things, are moving their processes out into the states to get them to move faster."
Within this account of today's meeting by Peach Pundit's Jon Richards, there's a very relevant point made by Georgia DOT's chief engineer, Meg Pirkle: A federally funded road project takes five and a half years from start to finish, much longer than it has to be, simply because of federal regulations. One of the selling points for this year's state transportation bill was having more state money to spend on transportation, because state-funded projects can be completed faster and cheaper.
Ultimately, that was the point of Graves' Transportation Empowerment Act. If Congress can give the states more flexibility and cost-effectiveness without devolving the federal gas tax, fine. But it bears watching to make sure those goals are actually met.