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Misguided Transportation Policy: For Sen. Lee, Ideology Trumps What’s Best for Utah

Utah

SOURCE: AP/Rick Bowmer

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) addresses the Utah Republican Party's annual organizing convention in Sandy, Utah.

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An economy can grow only as fast as its transportation system can move it. For decades, Utah and the Salt Lake region—working in partnership with the federal government—have experienced robust economic growth, due in large measure to balanced transportation investments that support everything from freight shipments to the mobility needs of residents of all ages, incomes, and ability levels. Unfortunately, Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R) has proposed legislation that would end the federal-state transportation partnership as we know it.

At every step along the way, the federal government—imperfect though it may be—has served as a strong partner, providing funding, technical expertise, and a commitment to help Utah achieve its vision for prosperity over the course of many years. Without this support from Washington, Utah and the Salt Lake region would look very different today, hampered by insufficient infrastructure and facing a more uncertain economic future.

Federal funds touch almost every aspect of Utah’s transportation system. For instance, federal funds help build and maintain the TRAX, FrontRunner, and local bus systems. Each year, the Utah Transit Authority, or UTA, provides more than 42 million trips, carrying residents a combined 250 million miles.

Sen. Lee’s proposal, misleadingly called the Transportation Empowerment Act, would eliminate all federal formula funding for public transportation; reduce highway funding by 80 percent, a loss of $248 million; weaken protections for clean air and critical lands; and effectively eliminate the ability of Congress to set national priorities.

The average driver pays only $96 per year in federal gas taxes. Sen. Lee boasts that his proposal would cut the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon. While this would place a few extra dollars in each driver’s pocket, collectively it would imperil the state’s ability to invest in projects that help Utah grow and thrive—a very large price to pay for a modest short-term personal benefit.

The impacts of Sen. Lee’s bill would be immediate and negative. In 2013, public transportation agencies across the state of Utah received $65 million in federal funding, about $50 million of which flowed to the Wasatch Front. Lost federal support would force UTA to eliminate routes and reduce hours of service, hurting people that rely on public transportation to reach jobs, health care services, and educational opportunities.

In addition to ideological ardor, Sen. Lee relies on a flawed understanding of how transportation influences the economy. Under his proposal, only interstates and a few other major roadways would receive federal support, as only these roads have a clear federal connection. The data, however, show a more complex picture.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, long-haul truck freight accounts for just 6 percent of all vehicle miles traveled in the United States each year. By comparison, 67 percent of all driving—or 1.9 trillion miles—takes place within urban areas in passenger vehicles. These trips may be local, but their implications are far reaching. In 2012, metropolitan congestion cost the nation more than $121 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel.

Federal funds support investments in a comprehensive roadway network and public transportation system—both of which mean fewer cars on the highway, allowing critical freight shipments to flow smoothly in support of the local and national economy. Yet Sen. Lee’s proposal slashes roadway funding and eliminates support for transit. Without balanced investments, Utah’s highways will become hopelessly clogged, reducing commerce and hurting businesses and residents alike.

Far from existing in a vacuum, Utah is the crossroads of the west. What happens in Utah—not just on its interstates—affects the entire nation. Existing federal programs and policies support the state’s vision while ensuring consistency with national transportation and economic priorities.

Utah is proof that a sustained partnership with Washington can produce real benefits. While Sen. Lee’s desire to improve national policy is laudable, ending the highly successful federal-state transportation partnership takes things a step too far.

Kevin DeGood is the Director of Infrastructure Policy at American Progress.

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