Congress has chosen to kick the can down the road one more time, passing a 90-day extension of federal highway funding rather than hashing out a real multi-year transportation bill. This is the ninth temporary extension, and if it runs out in June we will have gone 1,000 days without a reauthorization bill.
While the last-minute extension allows the government to continue collecting fuel taxes and disbursing funds for projects already approved and underway, it does nothing to foster intelligent long-range plans to maintain our transportation infrastructure. We need a multiple-year bill that clearly spells out funding sources and spending goals if we ever hope to have a rational highway and transportation system plan. Living extension to extension doesn’t allow for long-range planning, but instead fosters a grab-it-while-you-can approach by states looking to capture federal funds and the jobs that go with them.
Everyone involved in the process seems to acknowledge that, but legislators— the U.S. House of Representatives, in particular, this time around—just can’t see past political agendas to reach an agreement. The Senate actually sent the House a two-year plan that represented a bipartisan compromise and garnered support from a broad range of interested parties. But the Republican House majority seemed miffed that the Senate hadn’t accepted its own five-year bill and rejected the Senate proposal in favor of our ninth temporary extension.
Chances of getting a new transportation bill before the November elections now seem slim to none. Not only do partisan politics rule in this pre-election war zone, but the House appears to feel no real urgency in finding stable funding for rebuilding highways. When the ninth extension was announced, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), who chairs the House transportation committee that will have to approve such a bill, said: “It almost always takes two years to do a transportation bill, and I’ve been at it for 14 months. I think there is progress we’ve made. I am very pleased with the outcome today.”
So in the Alice in Wonderland world of Washington, D.C., being 1,000 days late is actually being ahead of schedule. I wonder how that would fly as a budget planning strategy for your fleet?
Major construction projects involving essential transportation infrastructure like highways require years to plan and execute if we expect to invest and spend those funds efficiently. Obviously, the uncertainty created by this drawn-out authorization process makes that difficult, if not impossible.
But there’s another, less obvious danger. The longer it takes to craft and pass a transportation bill, the longer various special interest groups have to lard up the bill with their own pet projects. That’s how you end up with bridges to nowhere and other local spending mandates that seriously undermine efforts to create a true national transportation infrastructure that addresses the very real problems of congestion and deferred roadway maintenance.
I don’t want to underplay the serious issues at stake, in particular the thorny problem of keeping the Highway Trust Fund solvent without adding to the national debt. But foot-dragging and political posturing with partisan proposals that are doomed before they’re even raised are not the way to address those issues.
We need reasoned, bipartisan compromise to deliver a transportation bill worthy of our significant infrastructure problems. Unfortunately, we may not get it anytime this year.