Transportation funding remains states’ problem

July 3, 2012

We don’t like to rain on anyone’s parade, but we’re a little puzzled with the accolades flying around regarding Congress’ approval of a 27-month federal highway funding bill last week.

Granted, these days any measure that draws bipartisan support is probably noteworthy.  But to call it – as the Obama administration did – “a good, bipartisan bill that will create jobs, strengthen our transportation system and grow our economy” is an exaggeration.

Yes, a 27-month measure is better than yet another short-term extension, of which there had been nine since the expiration of the most recent multi-year funding bill.  The expired measure had been in place for six years – long enough to enable the highway construction industry to make longer-term plans and commitments, including investing in equipment and developing the work force.  Two years?  Not so much.

Moreover, the measure maintains current spending levels that total roughly one-third of what most experts believe the country should be spending in order to maintain and expand the country’s surface transportation network.  Provisions that give states more flexibility in how federal money is spent may be welcome to some extent, but “not enough money” is still “not enough money.”

Nor is the level of funding – $94.3 billion in the next two fiscal years – even sustainable, given the level of revenue produced by the federal gasoline tax.  The bill requires $18.8 billion of general tax money to cover the shortfall, placing the burden on all taxpayers rather than more proportionately on those who use up the transportation assets.

The reason, as many know, is that the federal gasoline tax hasn’t been raised in 19 years, while federal energy policy, aimed rightly at reducing petroleum consumption, has resulted in revenue per mile driven decreasing to all-time lows.

That it took Congress 30 months to craft a 27-month funding measure corroborates the notion that this problem will continue to reside in the laps of the states.  Meanwhile, if our math is correct, the cost of fixing this problem in Pennsylvania grows by about $1 million for each day that the problem remains unfixed.


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