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The Highway Trust Fund Needs More Than Its Potholes Patched

By Ed Wytkind

America’s transportation infrastructure is in crisis. Across the country, transit systems are cutting service and jobs, highways are crumbling, and bridges are falling down. And behind this crisis is years of neglect: Congress has ignored the needs of our transportation system – once the envy of the world – out of political expediency and lack of courage. The result: a transportation investment gap that threatens our country’s long-term growth, undermines our economic competitiveness, and abandons millions of workers.

Unfortunately, this Congress – the least productive in history – is about to let this continue.

And though Congress (thanks mostly to obstructionists) doesn’t seem willing or able to do much of anything lately, they seem to have gotten the message that letting the Highway Trust Fund go bankrupt would be a problem. Last week the House passed HR 5021, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014, which transfers $11 billion to the Highway Trust Fund, enough to keep the Fund solvent and extend surface transportation programs through May 2015. The Senate is poised to vote on an amended version at some point next week.

But HR 5021 is a short-term patch, little more than a band aid. Yes, it’s undeniably preferable to keep the Trust Fund from going broke completely. But extending programs for less than a year doesn’t allow states (or their transit agencies and private construction contractors) to plan for the future and to put into place the major infrastructure projects our nation needs. With no certainty about how much federal funding will be allocated to their projects after next May – or if any will at all – it’s impossible to plan and implement projects to build and maintain roads, bridges, transit systems, and other infrastructure, which typically require years of revenue projection. That leaves states with little choice to do anything more but patch potholes, replace a few aging buses, and hope for the best, hardly a solution that leads to the kind of infrastructure we need to support our economy.

Still, if HR 5021 passes the Senate with several of its proposed amendments, it could lead us to a more effective long-term solution.

One promising amendment to the bill, proposed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) with bipartisan support, is a strong start in that it ensures that the Trust Fund is sustained in part by raising new revenue – which will be essential for any meaningful future funding strategy. But it doesn’t fix the ultimate problem: we need to force debate on a longer-term bill that will allow us to build infrastructure that works for America.

The amendment put forth by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Bob Corker (R-TN) can get us there. The Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment reduces the cost of the legislation and sets an expiration date – December 19th of this year – for surface transportation programs. Crucially, the Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment would both keep the Trust Fund solvent and ensure that Congress will undertake real debate on reauthorizing a long-term, bipartisan surface transportation bill this session. America needs this amendment.

We simply don’t have the time that Congress is wasting putting short-term patches on the Trust Fund. In order to remain an economic power, the United States needs infrastructure that works and construction and transportation projects that will employ millions. This is no time to procrastinate; it’s no time to run away scared from telling Americans the truth about the solution to this problem: we need revenue, not more excuses.

The Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment calls the question. Let’s hope lawmakers answer it correctly.

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