Normally, every five or six years Congress cranks out one of those “omnibus” legislative monsters that reauthorizes the nation’s transportation program — including the fuel tax, the spending that pays for asphalt and concrete, and support for public transit. But in recent years, the process has broken down.
A major problem is the growing inadequacy of the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. As cars become more efficient, people need less fuel and pay less into the Highway Trust Fund. With Congress bitterly divided, lawmakers can’t agree on where the additional money should come from. That has led to the “temporary” extensions we’ve had for the last two years. The latest extension, for only 90 days, occurred at the end of last month.
The extension relieved worries that construction efforts in our region would grind to a halt. If the fuel tax had been allowed to expire, Missouri officials said they would have been forced to cancel this month’s bid letting. But in Kansas, Deputy Transportation Secretary Jerry Younger said his agency has enough funding to continue work for two to three months if the federal law expires.
This is a lousy way to proceed. None of the alternatives considered in Washington in recent months was a sterling example of good policy, but the Senate alternative — a two-year program with a price tag of $109 billion — had bipartisan support and would have been the better choice.
But even this bill revealed the lawmakers’ desperate search for new revenue. Among the sources it proposed: a raid on the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund and a tax on imports of cars from Malaysia.
The House served up a five-year, $260 billion plan that relied in part on two bad ideas. One was to squeeze revenue out of expanded drilling on public lands and coastal waters. The other would have terminated guaranteed funding for public transit.
In the current climate, no one in Washington is going to suggest an increase in the gas tax. Yet more revenue from that source would be an essential part of a solution.
Plus, many lawmakers rightly argue that states should be given more flexibility in how they can find creative ways to use federal dollars. Congress should give more encouragement to innovative approaches, including public-private partnerships that leverage private investment with public dollars. These include projects that are contracted out and financed with tolls.
For now, the two-year Senate bill offers the best alternative for near-term stabilization, and an end to the current approach of one stopgap measure after another.
Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.