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Highway Crisis Is Averting. Now What? Highway Crisis Is Averting. Now What?

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Transportation Insiders

Highway Crisis Is Averting. Now What?

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Lawmakers are discussing another highway stopgap, but it doesn't solve the bigger problem. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Calling all magicians! Now that we're tapping the fund for leaking underground storage tanks and giving the green light to "pension smoothing" (don't ask), we're pretty sure the highway trust fund won't go broke in August. We might even be able to breathe until spring.

Yes, the House and Senate still need to vote on the proposed stopgaps, and there are still some differences among the negotiators. But on balance, all signs point in the same direction. Lawmakers are well aware of the dwindling highway trust fund, and Congress will act to keep it from depleting at the heart of this year's construction season.

 

But there is no more loose change in the sofa cushions. It's time to get creative. All those ideas that experts have dubbed "nonstarters" need a fresh look. Gas tax? Devolution? Vehicle Miles Traveled? Repatriation Tax Breaks? Public-private partnerships? Shrinking the Transportation Department? Bring it on. Maybe there are some new ones out there, too.

No idea is too outrageous. How about selling "Beat China's Infrastructure" bonds? Let cable companies repair the roads as they lay broadband and then charge their customers. Create a GPS tax. Outlaw paved roads.

This may sound ridiculous, but sometimes a writer/provocateur has to be deliberately outlandish to make a point. Not opening up the conversation to alternatives that might previously have been considered unworkable means we'll be right back in this same blog post six months from now. And no one wants that.

 

It's not just me. Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., both say that Congress should be dealing with the long-term problems now rather than leaving the big problems to be fixed in the next Congress. In a near-satirical interview with The Oregonian's David Sarasohn, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., predicts that his bill to raise the gas tax will pass in a lame-duck session of Congress because politicians won't have to exercise any leadership to make it happen. Lame ducks are tailor-made for blame-free legislation.

Even the transportation industry, which generally praises Congress for acting in the smallest capacity, is getting fed up. "The Highway Trust Fund has been limping from crisis to crisis for the past six years as America's transportation network continues to decline. Therefore, our message to Congress is simple: your job isn't close to being done," said American Road & Transportation Builders Association President Pete Ruane.

Meanwhile, there are bigger questions to be faced. How much should we be investing in infrastructure? Whose responsibility is it? Surely the perennial debate over the highway "cliff" will yield some clues as to what the public would prefer on these issues. Of course, those answers might not be attractive. Washington Post Columnist Robert Samuelson put it this way. "Highway spending epitomizes the larger budget dilemma. Many Americans like big government—but not the taxes to pay for it."

I give credit to Heritage Action for America for stirring the pot by continually questioning how big this "crisis" really is. Communications Director Dan Holler reminds whoever will listen that the 28 percent cut threatened by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx if Congress doesn't act refers only to the federal funds for transportation, which are about one-fourth the total expenditures in the country. The cut might sting, sure, but it's not a major amputation.

 

For our insiders: What happens now? What ideas already out there have the best chance of breaking through this endless stream of stopgaps? Where should we be looking for new ideas? Is Blumenauer right that a gas tax increase could easily pass in the lame-duck session? And if so, what would we do then? Is Holler right that the cuts we face aren't that bad? We know that Congress is paying attention now. What can we tell them?

[Note: This is a moderated blog on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to become a regular commenter.]

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