Senate Highway Bill Offers More Big Government Business as Usual

Washington, D.C., March 1, 2012 –The U.S. Senate is currently considering the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21, S. 1813), which would reauthorize the federal government’s surface transportation programs for two years. While the duration of the proposed bill is itself concerning, as reauthorizations typically cover five years, this legislation includes several provisions that run counter to fiscally conservative, free market principles.

“This has been touted as a coming together of both parties, which should set off red flags,” said Marc Scribner, land-use and transportation policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Included in the current draft and in several amendments submitted are provisions that would ratchet up regulations and remove oversight over federal grants to the states.”

Scribner highlights an amendment submitted by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) as the bill’s most egregious provision. “Sen. Kohl’s legislation would roll back crucial reforms that helped save the U.S. railroad industry from extinction,” said Scribner. “The dystopian future Sen. Kohl is attempting to usher in would see expensive, frivolous complaints from antitrust attack dogs at the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission. These two agencies are still living in the Antitrust Theory Dark Ages and are frequently and easily captured by corrupt political interests.”

These reckless provisions include:

1. Amendment 1591 to S. 1813 – Attaches Sen. Kohl’s Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act of 2011 (S. 49), which failed in the previous session. The language would end the practice of granting sole jurisdiction in matters of competition policy with respect to U.S. rail carriers to the Surface Transportation Board (STB). Instead of allowing experts of this peculiar network industry from the STB review complaints, this provision will put biased and political antitrust enforcers from the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission in charge.

2. Section 1518 of S. 1813 – Innocuously titled “State Autonomy for Culvert Pipe Selection,” the increase in “state autonomy” is not any sort of devolution proposal that fiscal conservatives can support. Rather, this is a sop to the concrete pipe industry on behalf of the Louisiana delegation that would modify competitive bidding requirements contained in 23 CFR 635.411. The envisioned new regulation would allow states to purchase culvert and storm sewer materials for federal-aid highway projects, guided not by cost and quality, but by political favoritism.

3. Section 307 of S. 2132 – Quietly added to the reauthorization’s financing legislation (“The Highway Investment, Job Creation and Economic Growth Act of 2012”), this language would direct into the Highway Trust Fund all revenue collected from a 2.5-percent tariff on imported automobiles. This sets a terrible precedent in the same way as the House highway bill’s creation of a new dedicated revenue stream from energy production does. Further increasing the reliance of the Trust Fund on non-user revenue makes real reform that much harder to accomplish in the future. Since politicians hate to give up “free” money (i.e., revenue-raising that does not show up on your W-2 form), Sec. 307 would make it all the more difficult to repeal these protectionist measures outright.