Congress has rescued the federal Highway Trust Fund, just hours before the Transportation Department was scheduled to cut back payments to states because the kitty was running dry.
So why are there so few cheers coming from transportation advocates? It’s because there’s so little to cheer about.
The $11 billion House-built plan that finally cleared the Senate on an 81-13 vote on Thursday was, according to the writers of Politico’s Morning Transportation blog, “the second-worst option.”
The worst would have been no funding at all. Instead, lawmakers set aside only enough money to finance transportation projects until May.
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A stop-gap measure is better than nothing, but not much. As Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said, “It’s hard not to imagine that Congress will simply hit the snooze button on this issue the next time it rolls around.”
In fact, that’s exactly what Congress has done four times since 2008.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted to shorten new funding even more, to $8.1 billion, just enough to last until mid-December. The strategy was to move the pressure point to the “lame duck” session, after the November election but before the clock runs out on the 113th Congress altogether.
Maybe, just maybe, during that short window, members would face the need for a long-term solution — but that most likely would mean increasing the federal taxes on gasoline (18.4 cents per gallon) and diesel fuel (24.4 cents per gallon) that have been in place since 1993.
The House would not go for that, and eventually the lower chamber’s view prevailed because it was better than nothing. It’s hard to cheer for “better than nothing.”
As The Washington Post editorialized early last month, “lawmakers don’t need more time; they need more spine.”
The funding mechanism for the adopted extension is another reason for disappointment. It’s a budgetary gimmick that anticipates additional government income related to “pension smoothing,” allowing companies more time to account for pension contributions but in the meantime pay more in federal taxes.
The Senate’s plan was a little better, but only a little. It would have made it harder for people to claim deductions on their income taxes if they did not deserve them.
If the goal is to finance basic transportation infrastructure, which the Highway Trust Fund is supposed to do, it’s more logical and straightforward to raise money from transportation users.
And 21 years is too long to go without updating fuel taxes.
Of course, Texas has no room to brag. The state’s gasoline and diesel fuel tax, 20 cents per gallon, has not been changed since 1991.
State Highway Fund revenue consistently lags behind what’s needed to keep up current infrastructure and address the transportation needs of a fast-growing population.
In a Nov. 4 election, Texans are scheduled to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment that could provide an additional $1 billion a year for roads — only about 25 percent of the estimated need, but still a big boost.
And unlike the temporary federal fix approved by Congress, the projected Texas revenue has at least some link to transportation users.
The new funds would be about half of the revenue from oil and gas production taxes that currently goes into the state’s rainy-day fund savings account.
With the current oil and gas boom, those taxes are up sharply and the rainy-day fund is getting fat.
More importantly in this context, trucks and other traffic tied to oil and gas development put a lot of wear and tear on roads.
The transportation revenue proposed in the constitutional amendment could be used only to build or maintain public roads that are not toll roads.
Texas will have to do still more. Congress will have to do a lot more.
Don’t expect transportation advocates to let up on the pressure. Transportation infrastructure is one of the economy’s vital organs.
There may still be efforts in the Senate to address long-term solutions before the end of the year. Almost certainly, those efforts will pick up long before the May deadline.
As Transportation Secretary Foxx pointed out, “There is no reason to delay the real debate.”