Road to nowhere

Toledo Blade
Oct. 29th, 2015

Congress evidently won’t pass a responsible multiyear transportation bill in the next few days or weeks

Over the past six years, Congress has approved more than 30 short-term extensions of the nation’s transportation funding bill. That’s not leading or governing; it’s driving on cruise control.

Lawmakers must hammer out a six-year transportation bill that meets America’s mobility, energy, environmental, and development needs — and finds ways to pay for them. If they don’t, the next multiyear transportation bill will look more like a grab bag of underfunded pork projects than a road map to the nation’s future.

The current 90-day extension of federal transportation funding expires today, but another short-term extension, lasting at least until Thanksgiving, is expected to be announced this week. Last July, the Senate passed a six-year, $360 billion bill; a $325 billion measure remains in the House. Without action by Congress, federally funded road work stops on Nov. 5.

But Congress is still a long way from a comprehensive bill that would fix the nation’s crumbling roads, generate enough revenue, and plan for a better balanced transportation system. The most responsible route for lawmakers is to pass a six-month — or longer — extension, including a temporary increase in the federal gasoline tax, and then get serious about the next six-year bill.

The next multiyear transportation bill should include a vigorous national program to jump-start alternatives to the gas tax, such as mileage-based user fees. But developing such a system nationally would take years, perhaps decades. The country’s crumbling roads can’t wait.

U.S. roads and bridges now rate a D-plus, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Federal Highway Administration concludes that nearly 25 percent of Ohio’s 27,015 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn’t risen since 1993. It has lost ground to inflation and increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles. Between 1993 and 2014, gas-tax revenues increased 63 percent, but highway trust fund expenses rose 83 percent, as road construction costs nearly doubled.

Dedicated revenues now bring in about $39 billion a year to the trust fund — at least $13 billion a year less than it spends. Each penny of the federal gas tax generates nearly $2 billion. So an increase of eight cents should at least cover the current deficit. To make the gas-tax increase fairer, it could be offset with driver rebates or tax breaks for low-income people.

The United States desperately needs a multiyear transportation bill that captures the vision and courage that built the U.S. interstate highway system 60 years ago. The measure must also look to the nation’s future needs for alternative fuels, innovative technologies, congestion relief, energy conservation, mass transit, improved air quality, and cost-effective ways to maintain roads.

Sadly, a bungling Congress cannot do all of that, and more, in the next few days or weeks.

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