Let me acknowledge the gentlemen seated with me, Senator John Warner of Virginia, who is the Chairman of both the Rules Committee of the Senate, as well as the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the Public Works Committee. And it is through his courtesy, as well as the courtesy of Senator Chafee, who is the Chairman of the full Environment and Public Works Committee that we are having this hearing in Idaho so that we can make part of the record the western perspective of how critical transportation is to the western portion of the United States.
I also want to acknowledge Senator Baucus from Montana, our friend from Montana, who is the ranking member of the full Environment and Public Works Committee, as well as the ranking member of the Public Works Subcommittee. And three years ago Max was the Chairman of the full Environment and Public Works Committee.
Today's hearing on the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA, as it is called, allows us to discuss the 21st century, a western perspective. It is an excellent opportunity for Idaho and the West to highlight both the beauty of our area and the challenges we face providing a safe and reliable transportation network in our states.
The reason that I strongly encouraged Senator Warner to schedule a western hearing on ISTEA in Idaho is because we have difficult geographic and demographic challenges facing our region which are unique to the rest of the country. Unfortunately, these factors are not normally a part of discussion when ISTEA is debated in Washington, D.C. Two of the most significant of these factors are, No. 1, large sparsely populated land areas with many miles of highway. Idaho is 13th in size among the 50 states with a land area of more than 85,000 square miles but a population of just over 1.1 million people, which ranks us 41st in that category. Large areas of our states are owned by the Federal Government, and they are tax exempt. In Idaho that's almost two-thirds of our state. Today, through the courtesy of Senator Warner, we have brought the debate and members of the United States Senate to Idaho.
When Congress authorized the National Highway System Act in 1995, we made a commitment to recognize and support a national system of 160,000 miles of highway in 50 states. We should never lose sight of the intent of the original Federal Interstate Highway System, which was established more than 40 years ago. We are one country with one national system of roadways that people must be able to depend upon. We cannot allow ISTEA to become a program that creates haves or have nots, winners or losers. We should not place a greater significance on any single part of the whole but rather we should strive to support the system as a signal network of safe and efficient transportation infrastructure.
A traveler on the National Highway System should only know when they leave one state and enter another because of a welcome sign, not because of a degradation as to the quality of the roads. During the reauthorization of ISTEA, we must design programs that address the unique needs and challenges of the individual states so that they can fulfill their obligation to develop and maintain their portions of the national system. For Idaho, for Montana, for Washington, these needs and challenges are, as I have mentioned, primarily rural in nature, but to many other states, including Senator Warner's state of Virginia, the issues are often different.
One of these major concerns is the so-called donor versus donee issue, and a fair share returns in the Highway Trust Fund for dollars that states put in. While states like Idaho and Montana, with our sparse population and large areas, are donee states and receive significantly more than a dollar-for-dollar return. Some donor states receive as little as 80 cents back on the dollar. While I feel strongly that sparsely populated states must receive adequate resources to support their portions of the National Highway System, I also recognize the inequity of the current distribution system and the financial strain that it places on the donor states.
I raise these points to illustrate that while the tremendous diversity of our Nation is certainly one of our great strengths, this diversity is often the basis of our problem in adequately funding our national transportation system.
In an attempt to address these and other important issues, several pieces of legislation have been introduced in the Senate for the reauthorization of ISTEA. Senator Baucus and I, along with Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming, have been working on draft language of a bill that we will introduce soon. This bill, the Surface Transportation Authorization and Regulatory Streamlining Act, referred to as STARS 2000, significantly streamlines and enhances the current ISTEA.
We propose authorizing highway program funding levels as high as the trust fund will sustain, $26 billion annually, substantially more than the current $18 billion that are being spent. This increased level of funding will enable critical transportation investment to take place and allow states to begin reducing their backlogs of deferred maintenance and construction projects. Under STARS 2000 formulas and funding increases, 47 states would receive higher annual funding than they received on average over the last six years of ISTEA. This increased level of funding would enable Congress to address the donor and donee issue by raising the minimum allocation program portion of the distribution formula from 90 to 95 percent, allowing increased funding for other important programs such as the Federal Highway Lands Program.
Our bill would place greater emphasis on rural formula factors, such as low population and density, lane-miles of federal highway in a state as opposed to miles driven, and consideration for the percentage of tax exempt federally-owned lands in a state. These new factors will help establish equity between large urban areas and rural areas, while at the same time protecting the integrity of the National Highway System. In STARS 2000 we also address important Idaho issues, such as contract authority, funding for the National Recreational Trails Act, which Steve Symms was the author of, and increased consideration in transportation research.
I look forward to hearing the testimony of the witnesses that we have invited today. We'll tell you that the record will be kept open so that anyone who wishes to make comments available to us may do so for the next week.