Finally, the U.S. House and Senate are moving toward completion of the sorely needed first major long-term highway authorization bill since 2005. But it is discouraging that they have yet to agree on how to fully pay for the six-year, $325 billion transportation program.
They need to find a way to do so by Nov. 20, when the current authorization for the federal Highway Trust Fund expires.
The House on Thursday passed its version of a bill the Senate has already acted upon. Both bills would extend the U.S. federal highway program through 2021, but neither bill pays for programs after 2018.
Earlier this year President Obama proposed taxing the profits of American corporations held by their overseas branches and using the proceeds to pay for transportation infrastructure. Congressional leaders from both parties and both chambers have been working on a version of the president’s proposal but have yet to reach agreement on its details.
A more straightforward approach would be to raise the level of federal fuel taxes, last set in 1993 at 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel. A combination of inflation over the past 22 years plus the increasing fuel efficiency of cars and trucks has depleted the Highway Trust Fund, which now relies on transfers from general revenue.
But although the new House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., lived up to his promise to make the House more open during consideration of the highway bill — he boasted that he had allowed hundreds of amendments to be debated — he used the House Rules Committee to prevent the House from voting on proposals to increase fuel taxes or study the best way to fund the Highway Trust Fund over the long haul.
Asked why the highway bill had such a restrictive rule, Rules Committee member Rob Woodall, R-Ga., suggested that the Republican leadership believes states should take the lead in raising fuel taxes. Citing Georgia’s recent decision to do so, Rep. Woodall said, in comments made to The Hill nespaper, “When your state has taken on that same burden of responsibility, come back to me and tell me how much more Georgia needs to put in to help you.”
Unfortunately, the possibility remains that Congress will fail to agree on how to fund the last three years of the six-year proposal, in effect curtailing the length of the highway trust fund renewal.
Major highway projects require time to plan and execute, and short-term funding makes the task difficult to impossible.
There is general agreement across the nation that existing highways, bridges and other transportation infrastructure are deteriorating and that new projects are required to ease congestion.
The interstate highway system needs close attention, and the federal government has the primary responsibility for those essential roadways. Adequate funding is necessary to maintain the system.
There is plenty of capacity to carry out the needed work. The construction industry has not recovered to the employment levels it enjoyed before 2008 even while the rest of the economy has forged ahead.
What is missing is a stable, long-range funding program for public works. The world has changed since the federal government and some states — notably South Carolina — last addressed highway funding on a long-term basis. It’s time to do so, both at the state and federal levels.