Because of the importance of Federal Highway Program reauthorization to our states and the future of the Nation, we are extremely pleased you have been able to travel from Washington to conduct a hearing in our region. In this part of the country, Senator Warner, when you are talking about surface transportation, you are principally talking about our highways. In the West the future vision of our economy, the welfare of our citizens, and our quality of life is linked to the mobility and access provided by our highways. And, it is the very same highways serving us that serve the Nation.
For example, the wheat that leaves Montana on our highways through a port at Lewiston, Idaho, is headed for international markets and contributes to our national economic goals. The commercial carriers that cross Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Idaho on the National Highway System support the Nation's just-in-time industries and markets by allowing capital be to invested that otherwise would have to be stockpiled at points of assembly or sale. But beyond the economics, our highways tie us together as a Nation and as a people.
Montana had 8 million out-of-state visitors this year, and approximately 80,000 of these folks traveled to visit us from Virginia. And when they cross the country, they had to cover a lot of distance outside of big cities where there weren't many people on either side of the road. But, even in the Nation's rural areas, the highways are there to connect the Nation and serve its economy.
As Dwight Bower has already mentioned, we are here today on behalf of the Idaho and Montana Transportation Departments and also on the behalf of the transportation departments of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. While the combined testimony of these five states is Director Bower's and my spoken remarks, our basic position, Senator Warner, is simple. We strongly support the proposed Surface Transportation Authorization and Regulatory Streamlining Act, STARS 2000, which, incidentally, is our goal. Further, we look forward to its introduction by Senator Baucus, Kempthorne, Thomas and others. While we thank all the Senators who are working for the proposal, we want to particularly commend Senators Baucus, Kempthorne, and Thomas for their tremendous leadership in developing it. For the reasons already cited by Director Bower as well as others, and I'll discuss shortly, STARS 2000 is an excellent bill which addresses the needs of our Nation and our states in a thoughtful, balanced way.
We also commend you, Senator Warner, for the work you have done to advance surface transportation reauthorization legislation that is in the national interest. You are making a strong effort to obtain increased levels from the Highway Trust Fund expenditures for highway expenditures and very importantly, you have demonstrated an understanding that there is a national interest in Federal highway program investments in and across states like ours.
Dwight has already mentioned three key objectives that we feel highway program reauthorization must achieve. In my remaining time I'll touch briefly on the other key elements we feel should be included or excluded from reauthorization legislation and why STARS 2000 is the best proposal to achieve these goals.
Besides increasing overall highway funding levels, achieving a fair distribution among states and emphasizing the National Highway System, the next highway program should also provide greater flexibility to determine how to invest transportation funds, streamline and reduce regulations and continue many of the aspects of present law that are just good practices, such as planning and the public's involvement in planning.
As regards flexibility, we strongly recommend that, compared to today the legislation should allow a greater percentage of the overall funding to be prioritized through the existing transportation planning processes. We ask that you remember the existing planning and public involvement processes began with the current program. After six years and hundreds of millions of dollars which have been invested in these extensive processes, we support them as the best approach to prioritizing Federal-aid highway funds.
This is not to say that the entirety of the future highway program needs to be totally discretionary. It is appropriate that Congress continue to require states to emphasize certain types of investments. We believe STARS 2000 strikes the appropriate balance. It continues emphasis areas for bridges, safety, enhancements and air quality guarantees in those areas with both ozone and carbon monoxide non-attainment, and it continues the suballocation of highway program funds to large urban areas in a way that provides for these population centers to share in program growth.
In short, STARS 2000 maintains a balance and walks the middle of the road between those who are advocating total turn-back of the transportation program and those who would increase the amount mandated to be set aside for specific purposes which come at the expense of core highway program needs.
STARS 2000 preserves the existing transportation planning process, including its extensive public involvement. Under this bill's approach a greater percentage of overall funding would be prioritized through planning, technical assistance and public involvement. We feel this is the appropriate direction and applaud the sponsors of STARS 2000 for providing this leadership.
Before closing I also offer some brief comments on elements of other reauthorization proposals which are before your committee. First, expansion of certain programs designed to move funds from a majority of states to very few states significantly hurts our region and the Nation. For example, of the billion dollars currently distributed to states under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, Montana receives only about $5 million per year. While we strongly support continued funding eligibility for these activities, expansion of this program or continuation of the current distribution formula hurts our states and makes it significantly more difficult to address transportation needs overall.
I also note that we see little benefit in the continuation of the existing bridge program which has a built-in disincentive for timely maintenance of structures or for the continuation of the Interstate Reimbursement Program that is distributing hundreds of millions of dollars to states that built interstates more than 40 years ago and in many cases have been receiving tolls on these roads for decades. These programs put our states at a significant disadvantage and really have one thing in common, they move a significant percentage of highway program funding to a very few states.
We note that STARS 2000 deals appropriately with these program issues and strikes a balance between streamlining the program and the continuation of the Federal role in the Nation's surface transportation programs, and it considers equity issues with an increase in minimum allocation which is a topic of significant interest of your home state of Virginia.
Lastly, STARS 2000 meets the national interest in providing an increased share for the western region; it is simply the best proposal for Montana, Idaho, the West, and the Nation overall.
Senator Baucus and Kempthorne, we applaud the truly national scope of your proposal, and we are looking forward to its early introduction. Nationwide STARS 2000 will increase annual highway program funding for 47 states and increase the overall percentage share of highway program funding for 33 states.
If I can take a minute to share a couple of maps. The first one is available for you there. These maps compare the proposed STARS 2000 distribution to other authorized proposals introduced to date. The first map shows the 33 states where STARS 2000 proposal would increase their overall percentage of the current program.
The second map, which is perhaps the most interesting, compares the percentage of each state's program share under STARS 2000 against other current reauthorization proposals. Clearly, this proposal, which is shown in red, compares very favorably. In fact, all of the proposals now on the table, STARS 2000 provides the greatest percentage of program share for more states than any other. This is even true, Senator, for your home state of Virginia.
In conclusion, Senator Warner, Senator Baucus, Senator Kempthorne, between Dwight Bower and myself, and on behalf of our five-state group, we have covered many topics today of this important piece of legislation. Fortunately, I can sum up our position of these issues very simply. We urge everyone concerned with the future highway program to follow the stars. The STARS 2000 bill sets forth a very balanced, thoughtful approach to these complicated issues, and we look forward to throwing our full support behind it.