Congress

Patchwork highway fund fixes the ‘new normal’ in Congress

Drivers pass road construction on Presidio Parkway in San Francisco, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. The same day, the House of Representatives voted to extend the federal highway trust fund until December, but some are pushing for a longer-term bill to give states like California more certainty.
Drivers pass road construction on Presidio Parkway in San Francisco, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. The same day, the House of Representatives voted to extend the federal highway trust fund until December, but some are pushing for a longer-term bill to give states like California more certainty. AP

Everybody, from business groups to governors to lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill, hates the patchwork approach Congress has taken for the past six years to the federal highway trust fund.

Yet it’s become the new normal.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the House of Representatives did exactly what they did two months ago and one year ago: They passed a bipartisan bill to extend the federal highway trust fund for a few more months, promising to get a bigger bill done by the end of this year.

“It seems to be the way we do business these days,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.

But Matsui, 53 other Democrats and 65 Republicans weren’t buying it. They voted against the $8 billion measure to keep payments going to the states through Dec. 18. More Democrats might have defected if not for a reluctant statement of support from the White House, and Republican leaders could not have passed the bill without them.

“It’s inexcusable to even get to this point,” Matsui said. “We’ve done this before, and unless we start saying no, it won’t start proceeding the way it should.”

The vote reflects the growing frustration on Capitol Hill at how difficult it’s become to pass even the least controversial legislation. It’s been a decade since Congress approved a long-term highway bill. Each time lawmakers talk about passing such a measure, they wind up extending the current one instead.

“Nobody’s been happy about it,” said Jim Burnley, a former transportation secretary in the Reagan administration. “Nobody thinks it’s a good way to govern.”

$65 billion What Congress has transferred from the Treasury to bail out the federal highway fund since 2008.

A Senate bill might extend the program longer, perhaps until the end of next year or for another two years. But one problem persists for lawmakers in both chambers: They can’t agree on a permanent, sustainable source of funding.

“I think there’s great frustration that we’re just trapped,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who also voted against the latest patch.

Blumenauer has pushed a solution supported by business groups, labor unions and a handful of Republicans: raising the federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel for the first time since 1993. He noted that this year alone, six states with Republican governors and legislatures have increased their gas taxes.

But tax increases have long been political anathema to most lawmakers in Washington, and even the White House hasn’t supported that approach.

The White House and some lawmakers in both parties support using a tax overhaul to generate additional funds, but that’s only a one-time windfall. Part of the overhaul could include a mechanism to tax corporate overseas profits.

Revenues from federal fuel taxes haven’t been enough to keep the level of funding flat. In the past several years, lawmakers have transferred $65 billion from the Treasury to prop up the program. In recent months, they’ve scrambled to find other funds in a manner that resembles looking under couch cushions for change.

“Where they find these pay-fors is an incredible leap of creativity,” said Emil Frankel, an assistant secretary for transportation policy under President George W. Bush.

The issue could drag into 2017, when a new president and a new Congress take office.

“Neither party is going to want to deal with this in an election year,” Burnley said.

And meanwhile, states are left to fend for themselves. On average, they count on federal funding for half their road, bridge and transit projects. They’ve raised their own gasoline taxes, created new sales taxes, and turned to tolling or wooed private-sector partners.

But that doesn’t mean they like it.

Nobody’s been happy about it. Nobody thinks it’s a good way to govern.

Jim Burnley, former Reagan administration transportation secretary

States also plan their projects several years at a time, and the uncertainty created by the short-term federal measures has caused them to put some on hold. States also face big project backlogs that they can’t make up.

California, for example, projected in May that it would come up $60 billion short of the $80 billion it needs to address the needs of its highway system over the next decade.

Malcolm Dougherty, director of the California Department of Transportation, said the funding shortfall posed a serious challenge.

“Our maintenance dollars can only go so far,” he wrote in May, “and California is facing much more expensive repairs to its infrastructure in the future due to a growing backlog of necessary repairs.”

California gets about $3 billion a year from the federal government, roughly a quarter of its transportation budget.

States can still count on federal highway funding, as long as Congress keeps renewing it.

If Congress doesn’t, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned states this week that thousands of Federal Highway Administration employees would be furloughed at the end of July. Without anyone to process payments, approve projects and permits or provide technical assistance, road construction could grind to a halt.

In June, Dougherty said that California could continue projects for a few more months if the federal spigot were turned off.

States are “rolling with the punches,” said Frankel, a former transportation commissioner in Connecticut.

“They’re really essentially going on with their programs,” he said. “I think that most of them believe that when push comes to shove, the money will be there.”

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