It’s been more than two years since the last federal transportation bill expired, and the debate in Washington about the size and scope of the next bill continues. Members of both parties have acknowledged the declining state of America’s highways and infrastructure, but appear to be no closer to an agreement about the federal government’s priorities for investing in the country’s crumbling bridges and roads. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave U.S. roads a dismal “D-” grade in a report that found nearly half of all vehicle miles traveled on urban expressways in 2009 were traveled on deficient pavement. In it’s final report to Congress, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Commission found that the U.S. would need to invest nearly $200 billion each year to maintain our road and highway network. Last year, public spending totaled $160 billion.
While there appears to be agreement about the need for repairing roads, the heart of the debate is the amount of money to invest. President Obama has been calling for the greatest amount of funding through his American Jobs Act. The President calls for a $50 billion investment in transportation and infrastructure that includes a new $10 billion national infrastructure bank and about $27 billion for highways and road maintenance. With Congressional Republicans and even a few Democrats balking at the President’s plan, the chances of the American Jobs Act passing Congress in one piece are slim to none. In an effort to get some of the provisions passed into law, Senate Democrats are preparing to break up the bill into smaller parts and vote on them separately, with the first vote in the Senate scheduled for this evening.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has been critical of Obama’s national infrastructure plan and opposes many of the President’s signature projects such as high speed rail. Mica released a broad six-year transportation proposal in July 2011 that cuts federal funding by nearly 20 percent. The House proposal would eliminate or consolidate 70 federal programs within the Department of Transportation and promotes the capitalization of state infrastructure banks instead of one national bank. House Republicans said recently that they are open to spending more on roads and infrastructure, provided that the additional funding is paid for by cuts from other programs.
Assuming that Senate Democrats and House Republicans can reach an agreement on funding levels, there remains a lot of disagreement on how to fund the bill. The fuel tax – which has not been raised since 1993 – is the largest revenue source for bridges and highways. However, Federal outlays have exceeded fuel tax receipts since 2000, creating a pressing need to find alternative revenue sources. The Highway Trust Fund has narrowly escaped insolvency three times since then, with Congress providing a bailout of $35.5 billion. Chairman Mica opposes any increase in the fuel tax, whereas Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, supports the idea of pegging the fuel tax to inflation.
With a fuel tax adjustment off the table, how to fully fund the next surface transportation authorization remains a $230 billion question.