The transportation industry is growing anxious over the highway trust fund "cliff" that could hit as early as July. The fund is slowly running out of money, and if its coffers get too low, road and transit projects will be stalled. Congress is running out of time to draft and debate a full-blown surface transportation measure. They have to do something by Sept. 30, when the current law, MAP-21, expires. If they don't, the money stops cold, assuming there is any left to spend.
What's going to happen? Here is former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's prophecy: "When September 30 comes and the highway trust fund is broke—it'll even be broke before the 30th, but [definitely] by the end of the fiscal year, it'll be broke—they'll pass an extension of MAP-21," he said in an interview for an upcoming National Journal Q&A. "They'll take some money out of the general fund. They'll limp through the election, and then I don't know what will happen after that."
This seems a prescient predication for anyone who watched the gymnastics that the transportation chiefs on Capitol Hill performed in 2012 to pass the two-year MAP-21. LaHood was in the thick of it. Both he and the lawmakers knew then that they would be called upon to perform virtually the same feat again, before they recovered from their first effort. And they knew the tight budget situation would be no different. The cycle continues until someone blinks.
LaHood stepped down last year after four and a half years as President Obama's transportation secretary. He had a long career as a moderate Republican in the House before that. He says that policymakers, specifically Republicans, will never recover from the downward spiral of transportation funding if they don't accept that infrastructure investment is a good thing. Spending money on it is not a sin. He knows that there are like-minded members of the GOP who want to invest in infrastructure, but they don't have the loudest voice in Congress. LaHood wishes that would change.
"Republicans who provide the leadership are people that have a vision, are people that recognize that if America is going to get back economically, be strong with economic development, you've got to have good infrastructure," he said.
This isn't a new idea at all. "A lame-duck Congress passed a six-year transportation bill and passed an increase in the gas tax, and [President] Reagan signed it. Reagan was a governor from California. He knew the importance of infrastructure. He knew the importance of having money to put things in a state of good repair," LaHood said.
LaHood, like me, has a hard time envisioning how the Congress of today can get to the place where it was in 1982, when Reagan overcame a Republican filibuster to raise the gas tax. Or in 1995 when then-House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., fought to hang on to highway trust fund surpluses.
It's getting there, albeit slowly. Lawmakers are well aware of the dwindling highway trust fund, and they are attempting to return to the kind of basic legislating on infrastructure that occurred before the debt ceiling and government shutdown crises drowned out everything else. But it's probably not going to happen this year.
For our insiders: Is LaHood's prediction accurate? Or can Congress find a way to eke out a more robust surface transportation bill? What would a short-term extension of MAP-21 accomplish? How would it impact state transportation departments? What are the best options for funding the measure? What is the best case scenario before Sept. 30? The worst?
(Note: This is a moderated discussion on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular commenter.)
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