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Congress Kicks Highway Trust Fund Down the Road for Another Three Months

July 31, 2015
Short-term extensions to the Highway Trust Fund do a disservice to everybody who uses roads and bridges.

Late at night on July 30 Congress passed a three-month extension to the Highway Trust Fund one day before funding would run out. Although congressional leaders promised action on a new multi-year program before the extension ends, it only prolonged the misery of those whose livelihoods are undergirded by a declining national infrastructure.

The measure provides for $8 billion from general funds to keep the program going while members of the Senate and House of Representatives attempt to iron out their differences to create a compromise for a new multi-year plan. As has been true since Republicans and Democrats (including President Obama) rejected a fuel tax increase, the main point of contention is how to fund the program.

Before the three-month extension, the House had passed a five-month extension intending to use the time to piggyback onto pending tax reform legislation new ways to fund a longer program.

Just days before the latest extension the Senate passed a six-year program. However, that bill only provided funding for the first three years by filling a squirming bag with a small swarm of unsightly tax and budgeting gimmicks. How to fund the remaining three years was left up to a future Congress. The Senate measure also provoked unwanted controversy by resurrecting the Export-Import Bank which had been killed by Congress, and was declared DOA by House leaders as soon as the senators approved it.

Many people don’t see the three-month extension as a springboard to a shiny new multi-year program, but view it as further evidence of legislators’ inability to act. “Congress can’t keep kicking the can down the road because without proper funding there won’t be any road left for the can to travel down,” declared Jonathan Gold, National Retail Federation vice president for supply chain and customs policy.

“As trade continues to grow, our transportation system must do the same to keep up,” Gold said. “This can only be achieved through a long-term sustainable highway bill that seeks to address failing infrastructure and freight bottlenecks.”

There is widespread agreement that the 34 short-term extensions of the program’s funding Congress passed since the last multi-year program ended in 2009 have had a deleterious effect on the nation’s roads and highways. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that spending will fall short about $13 billion this year and more in future years due to the lengthening list of extensions.

“This is crazy,” said a Des Moines Register editorial. “Neither federal nor state spending have kept pace with the growing need to build new roads and bridges, let alone replace aging transportation infrastructure.”

The 34 extensions over the past six years have created annual shortfalls of $15 billion in needed spending, and legislation designed to get back to previous spending levels is not enough, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a July 16 meeting of the Association of Road and Transportation Builders (ARTBA). “We need $15 to $25 billion more a year just to stay even.”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) told the ARTBA members that because they disrupt planning cycles, the short-term extensions increase individual project costs by 30% and make it impossible to move ahead on larger-scale projects, such as major bridges.

In a hallway conversation with MH&L following his speech, Inhofe agreed that a motivating factor for legislators to move quickly should be the fact that no major highway bill has passed during an election year. As a result, if Congress chooses to pass yet another extension at the end of October, the next realistic opportunity for creating a multi-year program likely will be 2017.

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