Our transportation infrastructure has become a major issue as current funding faces a serious shortfall. More than halfway through the year and most road repairs are still waiting to be started let alone completed. If the country faces another winter like the one that just passed, we’ll need tanks or half-tracks to navigate the pot-hole dominated transportation infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as well as other associations, such as American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), are growing more concerned as Congress continues to battle over possible solutions to this problem.
Over the years a number of solutions have been proposed and all have been rejected because party politics are more important than user needs. ASCE has posted a number of statements on this situartion.
Bipartisan Senate Duo Calls for Gas Tax Increase
U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bob Corker (R-TN) released a plan on Wednesday to raise the federal fuels tax and index it to inflation. Their proposal would increase the gasoline and diesel fuel tax (currently at 18.4 cents and 24.4 cents per-gallon, respectively) by 6 cents per gallon in each of the next two years, for a total rise of 12 cents, and index that tax to inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The plan would also include a tax relief offset to minimize the fiscal strain placed on consumers and businesses from any future rate hike. ASCE Executive Director Patrick Natale, P.E., applauded the announcement, calling it, “an encouraging step to improve our economy and raise the grades on the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure.” It is estimated that the proposal would raise enough revenue to fund federal surface transportation programs at current levels, and provide for a very slight increase in the out years because of indexing.
Late last year, ASCE supported legislation introduced by Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), H.R. 3636, the “UPDATE Act of 2013,” which would increase the fuels tax by 15 cents per gallon over the course of three years and also index it for inflation. This Congress marks the first time, in a long time, that both the House and Senate have openly discussed, and had members endorse, increases in the federal gas tax. Prospects of this Congress actually enacting such a measure remain unclear, though the best chance may be in the interim legislative period known as the “lame duck” session which begins after the November election and could stretch until the end of December. ASCE will continue to urge Congress to enact legislation that provides a significant, long-term sustainable funding source for surface transportation programs and projects.
New Report Looks for Solutions to the Highway Trust Fund Shortfall
On Wednesday, joining a chorus of advocates looking to move on the Highway Trust Fund, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) released a new report looking for solutions.
In the paper, CRFB calls for a long-term solution, which brings highway spending and revenue in line. Short of that, they also suggest that transferring money into the Trust Fund from general revenue would be acceptable if and only if that transfer is fully paid for with other spending cuts or revenue increases. The paper includes a huge number of potential options to help close the Highway Trust Fund shortfall that help add to the policy debate on Capitol Hill.
Senate Debate on Combined Transportation, Science Appropriations Bill Stalls
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate pulled three fiscal year (FY) appropriations bills – Commerce, Justice and Science; Transportation, Housing and Urban Development; and Agriculture – from the floor because there was not agreement on how to proceed with votes over amendments. The Senate had originally planned to debate the bills into next week with hope of speedy passage. The U.S. House of Representatives has already held votes on Commerce, Justice and Science, and Transportation, but has not yet passed Agriculture.
On Transportation, the House approved legislation to fund the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) at a slightly lower amount than is contained in the Senate bill. Both the House and Senate provide $40.3 billion for highways, and the House provides $600 million less for transit, $450 million less for TIGER grants, $130 million less for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and $200 million less for Amtrak.
The Commerce, Justice and Science section provides a total of $51.2 billion in proposed discretionary budget authority for programs at the Departments of Commerce and Justice, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This is a decrease of $398 million below the fiscal year 2014 level and is funded at the same amount as the bill that cleared the House, although the two chambers’ versions differ in details. Specifically, the Senate bill provides:
• $7.2 billion for NSF, an increase of $83 million over fiscal year 2014. The House version provides $7.4 billion.
• $900 million for NIST, $50 million above the fiscal year 2014 enacted level. The House version contains $856 million for NIST.
• $17.9 for NASA, $254 million above the fiscal year 2014 enacted level. The House version also funds NASA $17.9 billion.
Should the Senate quickly resume debate and adopt these appropriations bills and should the House approve Agriculture, there exists sufficient time before the August recess for both chambers to remedy any differences and enact legislation on-time before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. However, if recent history is any indicator, it is more likely that an appropriations patch, or “continuing resolution”, of some short-term length will be required this fall.
ASCE has been urging Congress to agree on a fix for the Highway Trust Fund which is facing insolvency in the next couple of months. Appropriations bills and current enacted funding levels will be inadequate to prevent a funding crisis if there is not enough money in the trust fund to provide project reimbursements. That is why ASCE is urging the public to act now and tell their Members of Congress to “Fix the Trust Fund“.