Very limited funding means that needed Texas highway projects like development of Interstate 69 must be done over many years in small incremental projects such as this overpass in South Texas near Sinton.

 

 

 

 

 

Congress Hits the Snooze Button Again

 

August 9, 2014

 

Members of Congress passed out a short-term fix for the federal Highway Trust Fund then headed off into the heart of the fall election campaign season.

 

The $11 billion package sets aside only enough money to finance transportation projects until May 2015.  For the fifth time since 2008 the Congress has “hit the snooze button” with a patch that does not address the basic fact that American infrastructure is being massively underfunded.

 

Federal lawmakers are showing no appetite for a permanent fix or even a longer-term patch, both of which will require new revenue that faces the cold hard facts about the many real costs of inadequate transportation investment.

 

The Washington Post editorialized recently that “lawmakers don’t need more time; they need more spine.”  Both Senate and House funding ideas for the “patch” were based on budgetary gimmickery.  Most members simply don’t believe there is public support for the straightforward approach to raise needed money from transportation users.  In the short run  that would raising the federal fuels tax that has not changed since 1993 (18.4 cents/gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents/gallon on diesel fuel).

 

There are voices in the Congress proposing additional revenues.  Senate Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee recently offered a plan that would raise the gas tax by 12 cents over the next two years, raising $164 billion over the next decade and covering the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. It would index the gas tax to inflation, pegging it to the Consumer Price Index, to avoid future shortfalls. Their effort went nowhere this year. “I haven’t heard of a single person that doesn’t realize this issue has got to be dealt with, and the way we’ve been dealing with it is totally irresponsible,” said Corker.

 

Moving the other way, some in Congress have proposed  a plan that would eliminate most of the federal gas tax paid by motorists.  The concept, commonly referred to by transportation observers as "devolution," calls for lowering the gas tax in phases from 18.4 cents-per-gallon to 3.7 cents in five years.

 

During the same time period, the bill would transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants.  Sen. Mike Lee, the primary sponsor of the gas tax reduction proposal, said that it would give states more control over transportation funding that they collect via their own fuel levies.  

 

The devolution plan would mean that Texas and other states would have to take the political hit for raising gas taxes and user fees in order to replace funding that comes back through federal Highway Trust Fund reimbursements.

 

Yet some states and cities desperate to build and repair roads are raising revenue and turning to more tolling.  Six states have raised gasoline taxes in the past year and others have raised that possibility as part of the funding crisis conversation.

 

At the core of the issue is the fact that states have highway construction and preservation costs that raise with inflation but they have revenue sources that don’t because they are fixed amounts.  Texas State Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the House Select Transportation Committee, has made it his mission to make this point to the public and fellow lawmakers.