On transportation, Obama can plan on starting his second term the same way he began his first. Then, as now, the funding crisis for the nation’s highways was a few years off but approaching fast. And policymakers still don’t have a strategy for what to do when the current highway authority expires in 2014.
Last year, Congress and the administration managed to put off the toughest decisions about how to finance the nation’s roads and bridges when they passed a mini-highway bill to keep funding at current levels for two years. (Highway bills traditionally last for five years.) The problems that befuddled them then have not gone away. The 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax cannot keep up with the cost of road maintenance, but too many members don’t want to raise it. A five-year measure costs at least $300 billion, a frightening price tag in an age of austerity. Meanwhile, none of the more sophisticated policy ideas for reworking the system—an infrastructure bank, a plan to replace the gas tax with driver payments based on vehicle mileage—has left the starting block.
Just as in Obama’s first term, budget troubles have pushed a long-term federal infrastructure plan off everyone’s priority list. Obama barely mentioned infrastructure in his reelection campaign, and when he did, it was to revive a suggestion he made a year earlier to use war savings to pay for short-term investment. Meanwhile, the Transportation Department stands to lose about $1 billion if lawmakers don’t reach a deal to avert the fiscal cliff.
A vocal minority in Congress wants to fund federal highways only through the gas tax, which would involve a 35 percent cut in current funding. The Bipartisan Policy Center issued a report in September predicting that such a cut would increase traffic congestion and decrease transit options in metropolitan regions. States might be able to make up about half of the loss for highways through increased tolls and state taxes, the report said, but they could not count on similar mechanisms to fund transit systems. The mess could alter the public ennui that AAA President Robert Darbelnet bemoaned on National Journal’s transportation experts’ blog. “We’ve all been sounding the alarm on this topic for years now, but the public hasn’t engaged,” he wrote. And it seems unlikely that the next year will bring any more clarity about how to pay for transportation.