The White House is warning Congress that it has until August to find at least $18 billion for the federal account that funds the nation’s roads and public transit systems from going broke. Failing to fork over the money would immediately threaten to slow or stop thousands of transportation projects around the country. Even assuming lawmakers find a short-term fix, the account will face a similar $18 billion shortfall every year for the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It’s Infrastructure Week, but it’s safe to say no one is celebrating.
Democrats and Republicans agree on two things when it comes to what has become a perpetual transportation funding crisis. The first is that it will not end until they find a long-term solution. The second is that they know what needs to be done, but they are unwilling to do it.
This contradiction has been on full display in recent weeks in Washington as lawmakers scramble to bail out the Highway Trust Fund. The account relies on revenues from fuel taxes to provide the bulk of federal funding for the nation’s highways and public transportation. As a result, it has faced one looming shortfall after another during the past half-decade as Americans drive more fuel-efficient cars fewer miles and as the cost of construction rises while the fuel taxes themselves remain unchanged since 1993.
Lawmakers understand better than anyone that the current tax rates—18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel—aren’t enough to prevent America’s roads from crumbling and bridges from collapsing. They’ve had to transfer more than $50 billion in taxpayer money to the trust fund over the past six years just to keep it solvent.
And it’s worth remembering what that current level of investment has bought us: a road system that was ranked 18th internationally by the World Economic Forum, behind Saudi Arabia and Luxemburg, and a transportation infrastructure that experts warn will fall apart as existing roads wear down faster than they are repaired or replaced. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1 in 9 of the country’s bridges are structurally deficient, more than 4 in 10 major urban highways are overcrowded, and 45 percent of Americans still don’t have access to public transit.
“States, cities, and businesses involved in transportation need the certainty from a long-term bill—a short-term patch is not sufficient,” Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer told the Finance Committee last week. Yet when Boxer and a bipartisan group unveil their relatively conservative proposal this week to keep the nation’s surface transportation programs funded for the next six years, she has made it clear it will come with a 12-figure price tag but no mechanism to pay for it.
The White House, meanwhile, unveiled its own blueprint late last month that was noteworthy for actually seeking to boost transportation spending by an additional $87 billion over the next four years. It was less remarkable for how it planned to do it—by relying on an injection of cash from a temporary tax increase on companies’ overseas earnings, making the proposal the latest in a string to address the short-term cash crunch while ignoring the long-term crisis.
“The only way we’re going to fix this is if everyone puts their ideas on the table and has an honest discussion on how to find common ground,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters during the proposal’s rollout. Days later, however, Jay Carney made it clear that not all ideas are welcome. “We have never proposed or supported a gas tax,” the White House spokesman told reporters. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor did Carney one better later that same week, telling Reuters: “I can rule out a gas tax increase.”