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JOHN E. SUNUNU

The chase is on over federal transportation bill

When John Belushi screamed “Food fight!” in the middle of the Faber College dining hall, he wasn’t thinking much about politics. He definitely wasn’t thinking about writing a federal transportation bill. Both activities, however, share some basic elements of choreography — great characters squaring off, strong fraternal bonds, and student government run amok. Unlike Congress, however, “Animal House” sports a Deathmobile and has a better sound track.

Senator Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, is no John Blutarsky, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one. When he says, “We want a long-term transportation bill — a sizable and robust one,” members of Congress hear: “Highway fight!” And the chase is on. Like the movie scene, it will be messy, confusing, and slightly silly at times. And even though we know generally where it is headed, it’s still great entertainment.

The tension of the transportation debate is animated by two unforgiving facts: First, you can only paper over the effect of falling revenues for so long. More on that shortly — but suffice it to say that people are driving less, buying less gas, and therefore pumping fewer dollars into the Highway Trust Fund. Second, the recent drop in gas prices has spending advocates pressing to increase the federal gas tax from the current level of 18.3 cents per gallon. Who’s going to notice a few nickels when prices have dropped more than a dollar over the past year?

In fact, gas taxes have been held constant for over two decades. Advocates argue that if adjusted for inflation, today’s rate should be 29 cents. That may be true, but “it’s about time” has rarely been a compelling argument for raising taxes. Tax hawks have already begun to push back against the idea, putting the burden on Republican proponents like Senators Bob Corker and Orrin Hatch to make the case that the money will be well spent.

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That’s where the rubber really meets the road. The tax question gets headlines, but it’s largely a diversion from the real struggle behind any transportation bill: Dividing the spoils. Behind the scenes, the important battles will be fought over how funds are distributed across programs and states. Thirty years ago, a complex formula took into account variables like state population, roadway miles, and age of infrastructure. Tweaking the formula in the right way meant disproportionate shares went to favored states like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

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More recently, reforms — and political pressure — have pushed distribution levels closer to “parity,” whereby states get back a dollar for each dollar contributed in gas taxes. Lost in those machinations is the tautology that if every state gets back exactly what they contribute, there’s not much reason for a federal program in the first place.

A second sticking point will be what to do about the ever-expanding list of non-highway programs that take money from the trust fund. Gas taxes have been used for everything from buses to ferry boats, bullet trains, and automotive museums. Today, non-highway accounts consume roughly 25 percent of the tax fund. In the past, the problems created by these diversions were dealt with the old-fashioned way: magically creating trust fund money. Not by raising taxes, of course, but by modifying pensions or other programs then declaring that the “savings” would be transferred to the fund. The last two-year bill shifted more than $20 billion. It’s the kind of shell game that gives the phrase “budget gimmick” a bad name.

Those days may be (mostly) gone. With Republicans controlling both sides of the Capitol, and a conservative like Inhofe driving the process, look for a tough squeeze on non-highway programs to be used as leverage to win GOP support for a modest gas tax increase. One final twist: earmarks. To their credit, Congress banned member specific projects in the last transportation go-around. If conservatives want another clean bill, they may have even more reason to compromise on taxes.

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It won’t be an easy negotiation — nor would it be many members’ first choice — but it’s the outcome that’s easiest to imagine. And like that cinematic food fight, it will be fun to watch, even if you get grossed out in a few parts.

Ultimately, the creators of “Animal House” may have been more visionary than we realize. In the film’s closing scene, Belushi’s character is seen cruising down an open highway beside his future wife in a beautiful Cadillac — clearly a man who could appreciate the virtue of well-invested gasoline taxes. The caption below tells the story: “Senator and Mrs. John Blutarsky.”


John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.