During an unfortunate era in Washington defined by inaction and indecision, it felt like a breath of fresh air when the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) reported out a multi-year highway title as part of the rewrite of the surface transportation bill. This move, by Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), is a welcome departure from the doldrums of short-term extensions and patchwork repairs that have left the Highway Trust Fund teetering on the edge of insolvency. In addition, one short-term extension after another makes it virtually impossible for states to plan for long-term investments needed to reverse decades of neglect to our nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems.
While the bill reported by the EPW Committee is a step in the right direction, there’s still a problem: it only increases funding to keep up with inflation. At a time when Americans and American businesses are screaming for safer and more modern transportation options, flat funding for highways is not the way to go. This highway portion of the bill sets the stage for insufficient funding for the yet-to-be released transit title. This makes no sense. Americans want more bus and rail services, not less.
Expansion of these vital investments will not happen until leaders in Congress and President Obama build upon the foundation created by the EPW Committee’s markup, and find the billions in new money needed to address the severe backlog in surface transportation investments.
Washington’s endless gridlock on almost everything — well, other than job-killing trade bills — is forcing the various committees with jurisdiction over our surface transportation laws to report bills that lack sufficient resources for the modernization and expansion of our highway and transit networks. Congressional leaders and those in the tax-writing committees with the power to move a serious, long-term funding plan must step up to the plate to fix this problem.
This is no way to run a federal transportation program — especially not one that was launched in the 1950s and expanded for decades under both Republican and Democratic control. The EPW Committee has worked its will with one hand tied behind its back. Absent a game-changing strategy that features a legitimate, bipartisan pay-for such as a fuel user-fee increase, however, our surface transportation system will continue to fall apart, thus undermining economic and job growth.
Stay tuned — lawmakers now face the expiration of all funding for these programs on July 31.