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Ryan’s Budget Throws New Light on Old Problems

Senator Paul Ryan has some big ideas on transportation funding - but will Congress listen?

Wed April 30, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Paul Ryan has Paul Bunyan ideas about how to cut the forest of federal overspending, one big whack after another. To that end, the Wisconsin congressman has proposed a House budget that no doubt will become a lightning rod this election year—and that’s fine: Lightning illuminates.

In the category of transportation, the congressman proposes that subsidies to Amtrak be whacked, forcing the rail carrier to reinvent itself along self-supporting lines. This is not a new idea: The subsidies were supposed to end a decade ago. Like a lot of other budget components, the reforms were rolled back to please corporate and individual constituents.

Ryan proposes that the Highway Trust Fund be kept solvent by restricting withdrawals to the actual amount of money in the fund. Imagine that. In the event that Congress in its wisdom proposes spending that exceeds the fund balance, any general fund infusions would be offset so that the fund transfer didn’t contribute to budgetary red ink. This is radical only to members of Congress who don’t care about the color of ink in the books.

And Rep. Ryan wants to give states more options in funding local highway projects. One idea is to let a state opt out of the federal gas tax and keep the revenue in-state. Federal highways would still be funded on high—i.e., in Washington—but state and local arteries would be prioritized and funded locally. The appeal of this idea is that revenue generated in state would not be subject to massaging by Congress. States that send more gas tax revenue to Washington than they receive back in funding see the problem.

Because the Senate is not expected to take up budgetary matters till after the election, the Ryan budget will mostly just be spotlighted by political opponents for trashing. Still, it is an illuminating look at alternative ideas. We need other ideas.

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