Road to nowhere

Aug. 11, 2014
Congress’ antics over highway funding are sadly laughable

By the time you read this, Congress probably will have “kicked the can down the road” on funding the construction and repair of our nation’s roads and bridges and paying for the operations of agencies like the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The only question at this writing is whether Congress extended funding until Dec. 19, 2014; until May 31, 2015; or just until lawmakers return from their August break and their vital fact-finding missions to the Swiss Alps or campaign stops at home to blame the other party for a lack of bipartisanship.

The current surface transportation authorization known as MAP-21 expires Sept. 30, but more urgent is the Highway Trust Fund, which is almost out of cash.  In July, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned states to expect reduced payments until the shortfall is resolved.

Once upon a time, Congress passed multi-year highway bills, giving state and local governments comfort that funds would be available if they committed to long-term projects.  Today, that truly sounds like a fairy tale.  In Washington’s rancorous political climate, two years—MAP-21’s duration—passes for long term.  From October 2009 until July 2012, lawmakers extended the highway funding bill numerous times— sometimes just for a few weeks—while pretending they might do something meaningful.

The latest tussle has been over the duration of the next short-term extension.  Democrats generally favor an extension only through Dec. 19 while Republicans settled on May 31, 2015, because they expect to control the Senate next year.  Democrats want to use a “lame duck” session after the November election to push through a longer-term bill, perhaps with an increase in fuel taxes such as has been proposed by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bob Corker (R-TN).

To raise money to fix the trust fund shortfall, the House-passed extension (H.R. 5021) through May 31 relies on several budgetary gimmicks, the largest of which is called “pension smoothing.”

It allows businesses to delay pension contributions, thereby increasing their taxable income and federal tax payments.  MAP-21 used the same tactic, but eventually businesses must catch up on their pension contributions, and that will reduce tax receipts.  So it’s just funny money.

The notion that the government can somehow make the sizable transportation investments without adopting a stable, reliable funding stream to pay for it would be hilarious if it weren’t so frustrating. Hilarious?  Yes.  Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” recently aired a funny and surprisingly insightful segment (http://on.cc.com/1riWLDi) on the Highway Trust Fund.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), who chairs the House tax-writing committee, argued that a May 31 deadline gives Congress more time to consider a long-term solution and that “any effort that just goes to the end of this year will only lead to another backroom deal during the lame-duck session.”  Camp added that a Dec. 19 deadline would be “a ploy to stick the American people with a massive increase in the gas tax.”

A backroom deal that raises the gasoline and diesel taxes just might be the only way out of this mess.

Beltway briefs

  • The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance recommended that FMCSA allow drivers and carriers to continue using either paper logs or existing electronic logs for three years after implementation of any electronic logging device rule.
  • FMCSA said drivers no longer have to print and sign paper copies of records of duty status generated by logging software programs on laptops, tablets and smartphones as long as they can sign them electronically and display the electronic record at roadside inspections.
  • The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a challenge to Safety Measurement System methodology because the 2012 suit was filed after the 60-day deadline for challenging the program, which was implemented in December 2010.
  • DOT’s National Freight Advisory Committee recommended 81 actions to improve the U.S. freight transport system.  Go to the report at http://1.usa.gov/1syiM1i.
About the Author

Avery Vise | Contributing editor

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