No matter how many times we hear it said, the claim that our roads, bridges and airports are in desperate need of repair just does not sink in. Congress obviously does not believe it. Late last month it extended the transportation law that keeps our system moving for the 33rd time in six years. Yes, 33 extensions.
This one is for two months. Come July 31, we will probably get a 34th extension. The problem is the gasoline tax, the prime source of funding for road repairs and other transportation updates. In addition, the Highway Trust Fund is now at its lowest since 1966. That too is expected to run out of money this summer. Then what? Another temporary extension, a quick infusion of cash from some other source, and another debt that will have to be paid later.
Congress is considering a variety of non-tax solutions. Some of them make little sense. For example, pension smoothing. That entails delaying the tax write-offs for corporate pension contributions. The government rakes in that cash, props up the Highway Trust Fund for a spell. Then it allows the corporations to make up the tax deductions in full at a later date. This hurts the corporations and the taxpayers of the future.
The federal gasoline tax has not been increased since 1993. In the meantime, people are driving less, driving in more fuel-efficient cars. Therefore, tax revenue is down. However, inflation, materials and labor costs are all rising. Wear and tear on the highways and bridges continue.
Congress seems no closer to agreeing to a real solution than it was six years ago.
Eric Jaffe, a reporter for The Atlantic’s City Lab publication, tells an interesting story about a president who faced a similar impasse. At that time, the gasoline tax had not increased for 22 years, one less than now. Roads were falling apart. The Highway Trust Fund was going broke. Joblessness was increasing. In addition, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress could not agree. Yet this president found a way.
It was Ronald Reagan. His transportation secretary, Drew Lewis, came up with a plan. The 5-cent increase was sold with this promise: Construction jobs would open up within 90s days of passage. Mr. Reagan sold it. Republicans and Democrats agreed. That was in 1982, the last time the gasoline tax was raised for the sole purpose of paying for transportation. Subsequent increases were passed as ways of balancing the federal budget.
Solutions in a partisan Congress are possible if both sides are willing to give a little after they face the facts. What would it take to solve this problem? We need a long-range solution for funding our transportation system. It does not have to be extravagant. It just needs to be adequate and to make sense.
The important thing is that a solution is found. A 34th extension will further delay projects and planning. And that will end up costing us much more than we can afford.