THE NATION relies on federal funding to build and maintain the roads, bridges, rails and other transportation infrastructure that Americans use every day. For the sake of the economy — and for the sanity of drivers, riders, bikers and even walkers — that federal contribution must be healthy and reliable. Instead, the last time Congress seriously bolstered transportation funding revenue, Bill Clinton had just been inaugurated — for the first time.
That streak could change, however, as an impending revenue shortfall forces lawmakers to revisit transportation funding between now and next May. There are at least two bipartisan options already on the table that, if acted upon, would break Congress’s recent habit of resorting to short-term gimmicks where the country needs long-term solutions.
The first is to simply raise the federal gasoline tax, which has been set at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. Though they increased the gas tax then, lawmakers did not set it to rise with inflation. Along with other factors, such as more fuel-efficient cars on the road, inflation has eroded the revenue stream to the point that it now falls short — something like $16 billion short — of covering the nation’s yearly transportation spending obligations.
In recent years, Congress has ignored perpetual shortfalls until the last minute, then hurriedly passed stopgaps using cash scraped up from arcane corners of the federal budget unrelated to transportation. In contrast to these fiscal contrivances, the gas tax is a simple user fee system that provides an ongoing stream of revenue, charging people roughly according to how much they use the roads. The policy structure is already in place. All lawmakers need to do is approve an increase and, better yet, peg it to inflation this time. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have introduced a bill that would do both. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a key player in the transportation funding debate, said last week that a gas tax hike would attract 60 votes in the Senate, at least as things stand now.
We would prefer to see Congress make that simple change and dispense with the issue, immediately. But President Obama and some Republicans are on the record favoring a different approach — raising money through corporate tax reform and putting it into transportation. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Mr. Obama offered strikingly similar proposals along these lines this year. Following this month’s midterm results, GOP leaders and Mr. Obama both put tax reform on their lists of potential areas of agreement in the new Congress, and the president explicitly linked the idea to infrastructure spending in his post-election remarks.
This approach could provide several years of continuous funding, which is good for state transportation authorities who want to be able to plan long-term projects. The revenue would be one-time only, leaving the transportation budget in the same or worse trouble after the cash runs out. Even so, a four- or eight-year program based on serious new revenue would be much better than the slapdash funding schemes Congress has resorted to lately.
With preexisting bipartisan buy-in, there’s no good reason Congress can’t adopt a better transportation funding strategy, and soon.