The federal transportation trust fund is supposed to run out of money Friday, and if Congress were working properly there’d be a straightforward solution to the problem. The trust fund receives nearly all of the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax and distributes the money to states to pay for highways and other transportation projects. The tax hasn’t been raised in more than 20 years, even as the cost of everything else, including highway construction and gasoline itself, has increased. Add a dime or so to the gas tax, and — presto! — the problem’s solved.
Instead, the debate over how to shore up the transportation trust fund has turned into a burlesque of Washington dysfunction.
Transportation bills used to be something lawmakers across the political spectrum could agree on; the ability to get things built in one’s own district or state was prima facie evidence of one’s effectiveness in Congress, and voting for a robust funding stream to make those projects happen was the inevitable price of progress. And the wisdom of paying for transportation projects through a gas tax — a transportation-related revenue stream — was widely accepted.
But the ideas before Congress in recent weeks and months have relied on money from a variety of unlikely places. House Republicans have proposed to pay for a six-year transportation bill, as The Wall Street Journal puts it, “with a one-time tax on corporate profits parked overseas in a transition to a new system for taxing overseas profits.” (Got that?)
In the end, the GOP-led House passed legislation giving the trust fund a three-month reprieve. The Senate has little option but to go along.
Leaders of the upper chamber hoped to send their own six-year bill to President Obama before Congress’s August recess. GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Barbara Boxer, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, proposed a six-year highway bill, though with only three years of funding. The money would come from, among other places, the sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and a reduction in interest payments to banks that belong to the Federal Reserve System.
If only this moment of bipartisan cooperation had come in the service of legislation that made tough choices, rather than avoiding them.
Instead, the obvious solution to the problem, a gas tax hike, was off the table. Antitax fanatics should take no comfort in this. Even Republican-led plans rely on new revenues in some form — just not reliable sources, and not ones collected from users of the transportation system.
Adding to the gas tax — which is more visible to the consumer than, say, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — would involve some modest political discomfort, particularly for Republicans. But gasoline prices fluctuate by far greater amounts from month to month, and raising the per-gallon tax gives carmakers and consumers a clear signal to pursue more efficient engines.
Instead of a long-term transportation fix, Americans can now look forward to a new round of debate on the issue in September. Let’s hope lawmakers recognize the folly of trying — year after year — to address transportation needs through fiscal gimmicks. A nation whose economy depends on continued mobility deserves better.