The U.S. Senate is expected to vote this week on a short-term extension of federal surface transportation programs, otherwise known as the highway bill, that would bail out the Highway Trust Fund with new revenue from non-transportation related sources and accounting maneuvers.
A similar measure already passed the House last week.
On Monday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx reiterated the Obama administration's support for the trust-fund rescue while decrying the lack of a long-term transportation reauthorization bill. Eleven former secretaries of transportation joined Foxx in an open letter to Congress urging swift action on a multi-year blueprint for addressing the nation's infrastructure deficit.
"Never in our nation’s history has America’s transportation system been on a more unsustainable course," they wrote.
The Highway Trust Fund, the repository of user fees used to help pay for highways and transit, is expected to run out of money next month because Americans are driving less, and when they do, they are driving more fuel-efficient cars. The 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax and the 24.4-cent diesel tax have not been raised in 20 years, which means inflation has eroded almost 40 percent of its buying power, while the cost of steel, cement, asphalt and construction labor has gone up. The uncertainty of federal reimbursements for projects through regular formula grants has forced some states already to scale back the start of new projects because they don't have additional money of their own to invest.
If Congress approves a 10-month patch, it will be the 28th short-term extension to transportation bills in the past five years. SAFETEA-LU, the last six-year funding measure, expired in 2009 and was extended 10 times before MAP-21, a two-year act that maintained funding at the status quo, was enacted in 2012. Federal Aviation Administration authorization was extended more than a dozen times before a multi-year plan was approved. MAP-21 expires at the end of September.
"Simply put, the United States of America is in a united state of disrepair, a crisis made worse by the fact that, over the next generation, more will be demanded of our transportation system than ever before. . . . So what America needs is to break this cycle of governing crisis-to-crisis, only to enact a stopgap measure at the last moment. We need to make a commitment to the American people and the American economy," the transportation secretaries wrote
But there is growing skepticism among political pundits that Congress will move on a long-term surface transportation bill next year as the presidential campaign cycle gears up. Experts and lawmakers agree that a sustainable new source of revenue to augment the Highway Trust Fund is necessary, but politicians disagree on how to achieve that. There is little appetite in Congress or the White House for raising the motor fuel tax, despite calls to do so by senators and congressmen. And other revenue enhancers are essentially non-starters for conservative lawmakers who feel government is bloated and who will insist on commensurate cuts elsewhere in the budget to offset any taxes on the public.
In a speech at the National Press Club, Foxx worried aloud that Capitol Hill will punt on the matter again next year
"It's hard to imagine that Congress will not push the snooze button on this issue when it's crunch time again. Come May, if we’re not careful, we will be right here again, with the shot clock set to expire, looking for an easy solution to patch us for a few months, leaving the real conversation for another time," he said.
"It's a sad commentary that we are, in effect, managing a declining system, a system that is crumbling, a system of growing potholes, a system with longer commute times, and a system that will lose us jobs we have no business losing."
This inability to properly invest in infrastructure — less than 3 percent of U.S. GDP goes to infrastructure investment of all kinds, while a much higher ratio is seen in places like India, China and Brazil — is partly due to the fact that Americans take for granted the mature systems built by future generations, Foxx suggested. And the deterioration of highways and bridges is so slow that it doesn't grab attention until there is a bridge collapse, he added.
"I can tell you the future is murky for governors and mayors. They are slowing, and some are outright stopping, the planning process for new projects. Without planning, there is no project design. With no project design, there is no engineering work. With no engineering work, there is no project. Without projects, there is no relief," the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., said. "Increasingly, states are shifting more and more of their programs to maintenance, which would be fine if our population growth was static. But it isn't. We'll have another 100 million people to move around by 2050 and almost double our freight needs by then. If we're stuck with the same system, Americans and their 'Made in the USA' products will be stuck in traffic with even longer travel times than today."
The Obama administration's four-year, $302 billion GROW America Act would address the infrastructure deficit, establish a dedicated freight fund, and streamline the federal permitting process, but Congress won't consider it, Foxx complained. The Obama transportation proposal rests on a one-time infusion of money from corporate tax reform, which critics note doesn't address the recurring needs beyond four years and is unlikely to get through a gridlocked Congress any time soon.
"The idea that Congress cannot make a multi-year, future-oriented transportation bill happen is one of the biggest self-fulfilling prophecies in our politics right now. And the lack of resolve is killing transportation softly and, with it, a key building block of our economy," Foxx said
He pledged to convene leaders in all 50 states to create a grassroots movement that would put pressure on Congress to make necessary investments in the transportation system.