New transportation bill, same old funding questions
By Kathryn A. Wolfe, March 24, 2013
Bill Shuster has repeatedly said all funding options must be on the table.
This may be the new normal: Congress enacted its last big transportation
bill just last summer, but it expires in September 2014 — leaving
precious little time before lawmakers have to turn to the next one. And
the funding problems that plagued the last bill are no closer to being
Policymakers have understood for years that the gas tax that fuels the Highway Trust Fund has been slowly losing ground, eaten up by inflation and the fact that Americans are driving less than they used to, often in increasingly fuel-efficient cars.
That means faltering receipts into the fund, which in turn has translated into less money to spend on federal transportation priorities. Meanwhile, the catalog of infrastructure needs continues to grow while advocates for more spending highlight the dire consequences of inaction — to both safety and economic competitiveness.
The most obvious, simple and straightforward solution would be to raise the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax, which hasn’t budged since the last time it was raised in 1993. But that’s also the most politically difficult option. As a result, a gas tax increase has become the third rail of transportation policy, sending lawmakers of all political stripes — Democrats as well as Republicans — fleeing.
Amid this problem, Congress last year struggled to cobble together a two-year transportation bill, known as MAP-21, that raised enough money to maintain the status quo using the legislative equivalent of scrounging under the couch cushions. Transportation advocates greeted its enactment with palpable relief but little satisfaction, viewing it as nothing more than an adequate Band-Aid.
Transportation stakeholders continue to hold out hope that broader discussions on how to fix the nation’s debt and deficit may result in the sort of grand bargain that could provide enough political cover to raise the gas tax. But so far, that hasn’t happened.
Absent the stars aligning in this way, policymakers are likely to face the same constellation of funding issues amid a weak economy that plagued MAP-21.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who says his staff will start drafting a new bill later this year, has repeatedly said all funding options must be on the table, including the dreaded gas tax. Eventually, though, lawmakers will have to narrow down what funding sources they can tackle. And the debate over potential alternative sources — tolls, for example — may be broader this time as a result of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s success in replacing part of his state’s gas tax with a sales-tax increase.
It also remains to be seen how engaged the Obama administration will be.
During the debate over MAP-21, the administration did not roll out a formal reauthorization proposal, a fact that raised more than a few eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Instead, President Barack Obama used his budget to sketch out the bones of a reauthorization proposal.
Inside last year’s proposed budget, Obama called for using money saved from withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to pay for a big chunk of the increased spending. But using the so-called peace dividend to pay for other priorities has never been popular in Congress, and the administration has repeatedly said it has no interest in raising the gas tax.