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Opinion

Editorial: Congress takes a wrong turn on transportation funding

Ryan Holds Press Conference After Passing Highway Bill

House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks in the US Capitol after the House passed the Highway Bill, in Washington on November 5.

(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

Following the Senate’s lead, the House passed a bill Thursday to provide federal grants for six years’ worth of highway and mass-transit projects — but with only three years’ worth of clear funding. Worse, some of the funding the bill does provide is based on accounting gimmicks that aren’t likely to pan out. Lawmakers have to stop putting off the real issue here, which is finding a sustainable way to fund transportation projects that meet 21st century needs.

On the plus side, the House and Senate finally appear ready to pass a long-term transportation bill after a decade of short-term extensions, which could give state and local governments the certainty they need to plan and invest in major construction projects. But that’s one of the few good things about their bills, which take basically the same approach to highways and mass transit as Congress has for decades. Aside from providing more help to public-private partnerships, they make little or no effort to promote congestion pricing, driverless vehicles or other innovative solutions to the gridlock that plagues the largest American cities. And by holding transportation funding essentially flat, the proposals ignore the huge and growing backlog of maintenance work needed on roads, highways and bridges.

The proposals ignore the huge and growing backlog of maintenance work needed on roads, highways and bridges.

Instead, the main departure from the status quo seems to be the plan to spend the dwindling federal gasoline tax revenue faster than it’s expected to come in, and trust whoever is in charge of Congress and the White House three years from now to come up with the money needed to keep the program going. There’s no reason not to tackle the long-term funding problem now; it’s been obvious for years that the per-gallon gas tax, which hasn’t budged since 1993, was going to generate less money as cars and trucks improved their fuel economy. But House GOP leaders refused even to allow a vote on raising the gas tax, which would be the simplest, most logical way to shore up the Highway Trust Fund.

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So much for new House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s promise to allow for more open debate. And speaking of Ryan, an expert on tax and budget policy, it’s hard to see how he stomached the House bill’s fantasy-filled revenue-raising provisions, such as the one that would supposedly raise $2.5 billion by having the Internal Revenue Service turn over its debt collection efforts to private firms, even though the government lost money the last two times it went that route.

There’s some ideology at work here alongside the reluctance to cast votes to raise the gas tax, even when an overwhelming majority of the country supports it. Small-government conservatives want to diminish Washington’s involvement in everything, regardless of how important it might be. And members of Congress know that state and local government leaders — who have to manage the effects of crumbling infrastructure — will eventually cave in and raise local taxes to fund the work. About half the states have taken steps to increase their transportation funding, either by raising state gas taxes or passing bonds. But the federal government helped build the country’s transportation system, which is crucial to the U.S. economy and its ability to compete. This is no time for Washington to shrink its role in building and maintaining safe, reliable roads and bridges to carry goods and people.

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