Congress searching for highway funding fix

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Congress is grappling with another looming expiration of funding for the nation’s highway trust fund at the end of next month — but it isn’t close to a permanent fix.

Democrats are making a concerted pitch to convince Republicans to work for a six-year extension. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chair of the Ways and Means Committee and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, both say they favor a long-term funding bill but the hangup remains the same it has for five years: how to pay for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

“The roads, bridges and highways of this country are in a sorry state. And the Highway Trust Fund that pays for them is broke,” Ryan said at a hearing Wednesday.

In February, the Obama administration unveiled a $478 billion, six-year surface transportation bill. Over the last six years, Congress has approved 34 short-term funding patches, adding $63 billion to the highway trust fund that has traditionally been funded with gas taxes — most recently a temporary extension of spending authority in May.

Michigan's federal funding for highways has stagnated at a little more than $1 billion annually since 2010.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal, the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Wednesday the lack of funding is a crisis in Michigan and across the country.

“The facts are startling. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our national infrastructure a ‘D+’ grade. My home state of Michigan was given a ‘D.’ There are bridges in terrible condition — 145,000 of them total — in every one of our districts. A quarter of them are more than 60 years old. Two-thirds of our highways are in poor or mediocre condition,” Levin said. “Inaction is not an option. This cannot be done on a partisan basis. A long-term infrastructure bill must be a product of our coming together ... All options should be on the table, except doing nothing.”

Ryan agreed action is needed.

“Instead of fixing the problem, we’ve dodged it. Five times we’ve come up with temporary solutions and transferred money from the general fund into the trust fund — which, in English, means we’ve patched a pothole and not fixed the problem,” Ryan said, noting without new revenue, Congress will need to find at least another $168 billion over the next 10 years.

“We need to find a real, long-term solution,” Ryan said.

President Barack Obama and some Democrats want to use the proceeds of corporate tax reform to pay for a big boost in road repairs.

The tax reform push is because the traditional source of revenue is declining. From 1956 until 1993, Congress regularly increased gas taxes from an initial 3 cents a gallon to the current 18.4 cents. Had the gas tax been adjusted for inflation, it would be 30 cents a gallon today.

But raising the gas tax has been one of the most unpopular ideas on Capitol Hill in the past two decades. Because Americans are driving less while driving more fuel-efficient cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles, less revenue is being raised to fix the roads. During the past six years, Congress has transferred nearly $70 billion from the general fund into the highway trust fund to keep the road repairs going in more than 30 short-term funding measures.

“People have been using less gas. They’re driving more fuel-efficient cars. You get a lot more miles to the gallon than you used to. And so gas just doesn’t track use as well as it used to. And we can’t just chase fuel efficiency with higher taxes,” Ryan said. “So I want to make very clear: I’m against raising the gas tax. There’s not much happening in this economy to help it grow, but lower gas prices is one of them.”

Other ideas are on the table including charging drivers a vehicle mileage tax — or even offering drivers a one time “all you can drive” fee at the time of annual registration. That would be difficult because it would require collecting taxes from 250 million separate vehicle owners.

Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it an “unnecessary crisis” and urged Republicans to sit down and negotiate a deal.

“Get it done. Don’t wait until the last minute,” Reid said. “Six weeks is plenty of time to avoid this crisis.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said Democrats are “ready to reach across the aisle” and get something done.

She said the U.S. has the 16th best roads in the world.

“The bad news is we’re behind Mexico but the good news is we’re one step above Croatia. Thank God for that.” Stabenow said. “Pretty embarrassing — the world’s global economic power — and we’re just beating Croatia. We can do better than that.”

The administration wants to hike highway spending by 29 percent over the period to $317 billion and hike mass transit spending 76 percent to $116 billion for projects like light rail, street cars, and bus rapid transit. It would also spend $29 billion to fund the development of high-performance rail and other passenger rail programs as part of an integrated national transportation strategy.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted as the American population grows — predicted to add 70 million people in the next 30 years — and concentrates in cities, the country will have to grapple with more traffic jams. A report he issued earlier this year warns by 2045, there will be about 81 million Americans older than 65 making up 21 percent of the population — about twice as many older Americans as there are today. As more are no longer able to drive it raises questions about if adequate mass transit systems will be in place.

Americans waste more than 40 hours a year in traffic and the cost of congestion to the United States annually is more than $121 billion. The report notes that transportation for nearly 20 percent of total household expenses and 12-15 percent of total household income; but for lower income households transportation costs account for about 32 percent.