The steep rise in gas prices has had a dramatic impact on American driving habits. According to Federal Highway Administration data, this May marked the seventh consecutive month that Americans drove fewer miles this year than the year before. Americans drove almost 10 billion fewer miles in May 2008 than they did in May 2007. That 3.7% drop in miles driven means less gas tax revenue for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says is expected fall $3.1 billion short of its fiscal 2009 budget.

As if high gas prices were not hitting Americans hard enough, the highway fund shortfall comes at a time when the United States is in desperate need for better infrastructure spending. In 2005, traffic delays wasted 4.2 billion hours of Americans’ time. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that congestion cost Americans $78.2 billion. Our infrastructure problem did not pop up over night. It has grown over many decades due to misplaced priorities and a lack of accountability. Now that the Highway Trust Fund is in peril, it is time for a complete transformation of our transportation funding system.

One of the biggest problems voters face in trying to control transportation policy is finding the right official to hold accountable. Throughout the nation, there are always a large number of overlapping government transportation bodies at the local, state and federal levels that spend transportation funds. With so many actors in the arena, it is next to impossible for voters to hold these public entities accountable for failures. In Northern Virginia alone, transportation bureaucracies include the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, the National Park Service, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Talk about a need for less government.

Worse still, more and more, Congress is getting involved. Transportation policies ought to be done on a regional basis and respond to the needs of the motorists and truckers who pay the taxes that benefit the system. But thanks to the recent explosion of congressional earmarks, privileged constituencies that pay the best lobbyists are the ones who have their needs met. The most recent highway bill had a record 7,000 earmarks, including an effort to federalize the nation’s sidewalks. This is the wrong direction for transportation policy.

As Heritage Senior Research Fellow Ron Utt writes, “a much more productive approach would be to ‘turn back’ the federal highway program to the states.” Utt explains: “A turnback plan would eliminate the federal middleman by empowering the states to collect the federal fuel tax and use it to meet the transportation priorities of their own choosing.” States must also then work to streamline the number of bureaucracies within their jurisdictions so that voters can better hold officials accountable.

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