Express-News: Congress is Flirting With Disaster

 

August 6, 2015

San Antonio Express-News Editorial published 8/4/15

 

There is no denying the state of the nation’s highways and bridges. The last report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a D+. That means disasters waiting to happen.


Congress’ response has been woefully inadequate, and as it prepared to start a recess for five weeks of summer vacation, the House behaved true to form. It passed a stopgap three-month funding bill to finance highway and bridge projects, refusing to consider a six-year transportation bill approved by the Senate. To avoid a break in funding, the Senate also passed the three-month bill. It is the 34th stopgap transportation funding measure since 2009.


Congress’ Band-Aid approach was necessary because the Department of Transportation’s authority to send aid to states would have expired July 31.


The nation’s users of highways and bridges deserve a long-term transportation bill and a reliable source to feed the Highway Trust Fund.


Congress’ fiscal hawks decry deficit spending on infrastructure. The U.S. gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon — the same since 1993. It raises about $34 billion a year. But the federal government spends about $16 billion more than that every year — and even that doesn’t cover what’s really needed to repair or replace aging infrastructure, much less build new modern projects.


Increasing the gas tax should be an option. But even if there is deficit spending, building infrastructure is a surer way than tax cuts — conservatives’ perpetual fallback position — to raise government revenue. This kind of spending creates jobs, simultaneously stimulating the economy and helping the Treasury.


Last year, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment to boost transportation — $1.7 billion for projects this year alone. But the state still needs federal funding, which contributes about a third of the Texas Department of Transportation budget.


In February, the president proposed spending $478 billion over the next six years on the nation’s infrastructure. He proposed doing this without raising the gas tax, though consumers are paying low prices at the pump.


Yes, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks will mean less gas used over the long run. But raising the gas tax should still be considered because this tax is really nothing more than a fee for those who use the nation’s infrastructure — a user’s fee. What we pay should be more in line with the need.


The president has proposed other funding mechanisms, including taxing overseas corporate earnings and drawing more private funds for infrastructure improvements. All of it — including an increased gas tax — should be on the table.


Congress must make long-term transportation funding a top priority when it returns from recess.