Surface Funds Go Far Beyond the Surface

When is federal transportation funding not really transportation funding? According to the Heritage Foundation, it’s when 35% of the allotted funds that come from our gasoline taxes are "diverted to high-cost, underutilized programs like trolley cars, transit, covered bridges, hiking trails, earmarks, administrative overhead, streetscapes, flower planting, hiking and bicycle paths, museums, transportation enhancements, tourist attractions and archaeology."

I don’t think Heritage or anyone else is questioning the need for at least some of the initiatives identified above. The concern, a legitimate one, is where should the money come from. Interested to hear your perspective on this one?

Below is an explanation from Heritage about the requirement to divert funds, the 12 categories eligible for diversion and how one state has used its funding:  

Under current law, each state is required to devote 10 percent of the Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds it receives each year from the federal highway trust fund to eligible enhancement projects as defined in existing statutes. Under legislation extended by SAFETEA-LU (P.L. 109-59), fiscal year 2012 spending authorizations for the STP will total $9.3 billion, implying that enhancement spending would then total $930 million that year.

According to current law, enhancement program spending must be limited to the following 12 purposes:

  • Provision of facilities for pedestrians and bicycles;

  • Provision of safety and educational activities for pedestrians and bicyclists;

  • Acquisition of scenic easements and scenic or historic sites (including historic battlefields);

  • Scenic or historic highway programs (including the provision of tourist and welcome center facilities);

  • Landscaping and other scenic beautification;

  • Historic preservation;

  • Rehabilitation and operation of historic transportation buildings, structures, or facilities;

  • Preservation of abandoned railway corridors;

  • Inventory, control, and removal of outdoor advertising;

  • Archaeological planning and research;

  • Environmental mitigation; and

  • Establishment of transportation museums. 

The Virginia Department of Transportation provides detailed information on its enhancement projects, and its annual list illustrates just how silly the program can get, as measured by the misspending on approved projects using scarce federal transportation dollars. Among the 82 approved projects costing $30.2 million for FY 2012 are the restoration of the historic Bull Mill in Scott County, a hiking trail on an abandoned rail bed in Buchanan County, renovation of a former rail passenger waiting area in Danville, renovation of the LaCrosse Hotel, restoration of the Assateague and Cape Henry lighthouses, construction of a pilot schooner for a Norfolk museum, smartphone-based battlefield tours, and gateway signs to various Virginia wine regions.