November 4, 2015

A Critical Touchdown For the Capitol Team

Becky Weber

It is half way through football season and an analogy to the gridiron lends itself well to some commentary on the current debate on the highway bill. The Congress is moving the football down the field and is in the red zone close to scoring an important touchdown in the critical global game to maintain and improve the nation’s highway and transit networks. Ordinary Americans, including commuters, parents, movers of freight and the Capitol team itself will benefit if Congress can get the ball across the goal line.

The highway bill provides a healthy 40% of total transportation spending in the country, in partnership with State and local governments who need long lead times for planning purposes.  The Founding Fathers understood long ago that roads, along with defense, were the two most basic responsibilities of a nation and included them both in the Constitution itself.  In doing so they laid the groundwork for a clear and consistent federal role and a national interest in developing, maintaining and supporting the vital transportation infrastructure that connects American consumers, manufacturers and farmers to domestic and world markets. President Eisenhower, the “father” of our nation’s remarkably innovative Interstate system, took it a step further and observed that without the unifying force of transportation, “we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.” Not only is almost every citizen’s quality of life impacted by transportation on a daily basis, but infrastructure programs are some of our strongest drivers for economic growth, global competitiveness and jobs.

Over the last dozen years, Congress has fumbled the ball with its stewardship of these important programs to the nation, primarily due to being stymied on a meaningful way to address its long term financing issues. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent rankings gives the U.S. a sterling D+ on the overall quality of infrastructure; highways and transit networks score an even lower D. Meanwhile, other countries score touchdown after touchdown. The Highway Trust Fund, funded primarily with federal fuel taxes which haven’t been modified in 22 years, hasn’t been keeping pace with expenditures due to more fuel-efficient vehicles and patterns of decreased driving caused by the downturn in the economy and changing driving patterns of the young. Short term authorizations, short term extensions, and infusions of general funds from the U.S. Treasury to keep the Highway Trust Fund in the black, and programs running sometimes for just weeks at a time, have become the norm. As of last week, Congress has passed a total of 26 short term extensions of Federal highway and transit programs since 2003! As ordinary Americans spend more and more time sitting in congestion, these bad plays, fumbles and turnovers contribute to their increasingly dim view of their Congressional team.

While the long term financing of these programs remains unresolved, Congress has an opportunity this month to score a touchdown by finalizing a highway bill that gives the country’s surface transportation systems more stability then they’ve had in more than a decade. The Senate has passed, and the House is poised to pass this week, respective six-year reauthorization bills with the first three years of each bill fully funded with Highway Trust Fund revenue supplemented by General Funds. Both bills have strong bipartisan support. It’s not a game win, but an important score that gives fans confidence that Congress can come together to help address part of a big problem. Then, to really win the game, the Capitol team needs to commit to a serious game plan to address long term infrastructure financing as part of comprehensive tax reform. Let’s hope the Capitol team gets this one in the end zone posts and doesn’t waste a minute revising the playbook to secure the ultimate win for America.