Guest Column

Sustaining Highway Trust Fund will be test for Congress

February 20, 2015
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If you like potholes, thank a politician. Love your traffic? Hug a Congressman, specifically those who voted against recent transportation reauthorizations.

Why so harsh? Because so much is now at stake. Unlike other federal spending programs, road construction affects every citizen regardless of demographic or socio-economic background. Every product we consume — supermarket goods, office furniture — is transported over our roads and highways. According to the American Trucking Association, truckers hauled nearly 10 billion tons of goods on our roads last year — and that demand is expected to sharply rise.

This October marks the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the Highway Beautification Act. The bill prohibited junkyards and billboards from being seen from interstates. Today our surface transportation challenges are far graver than mere aesthetics. Our highways and bridges are deteriorating. U.S. infrastructure was designed in the previous century for a fraction of the drivers that now use our roads. It now must accommodate 210 million drivers and an estimated 60 billion trips annually.

According to federal statistics, there are nearly 80,000 structurally deficient bridges, and nearly the same amount that need major repair. Almost half of our roads need complete overhauls, in addition to the standard repair and repaving.

President Barack Obama recently released his $4 trillion budget with the aim of freeing up more discretionary spending that has been locked up due to the so-called “sequester” austerity program agreed to in 2013 with its built-in automatic budget cuts. Obama’s FY 2016 budget now calls for about a 7 percent “bump up” in both defense and domestic discretionary spending in infrastructure and social programs. Don’t dismiss the President’s big spending strategy. This stimulus-like increase could pave the way for a successful budget compromise that could satisfy the spending priorities of both parties.

To pay for higher domestic infrastructure programs, eliminate the remaining years of the sequester and shrink the deficit, Obama proposes a $1.8 trillion deficit reduction package by taking credit for slowing the growth of health care costs in the future and a combination of savings from proposals ranging from immigration reform to “taxing the rich.”

Even in the unlikely event this proposal would pass after being rejected multiple times in recent years, Obama’s deficit reduction package would not make much difference in counter-balancing its anticipated $7.65 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years as annual deficits are projected to more than triple from the current $229 billion (now 1.3 percent of GDP) to $785 billion in 2025 (2.8 percent of GDP).

No doubt there will be higher interest costs to go with this increased debt. This will surely compound as a major problem as record low interest rates start to rise on the horizon, thus adding trillions of dollars in debt. Obama’s (and Congress’s) reluctance to take on entitlements is in sharp contrast to President Clinton, who was actively engaged on the issue. Without a serious effort by both the White House and Congress to grapple with entitlements, any infrastructure investment program of any consequence will be difficult to realize. Failing to work on a long-term infrastructure bill strangles our economic arteries and affects every one of us.

According to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, DOT expects the Highway Trust Fund to drop below a sustainable level in a quarter year, compelling him to withhold payments unless Capitol Hill provides the funding to replenish it. “After May, we will be watching very carefully the fund balance in the Highway Trust Fund,” he told a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We expect that at current spending levels, we’ll likely have to notify states in the June timeline of our cash management measure.”

Transportation funding has typically enjoyed bi-partisan support. More standoffs between a recalcitrant few in Congress and the White House are expected as battles over immigration policy and spending priorities impede progress on multiple fronts.

It’s time for Congress to move, but will they?

Unless a member of Congress at least makes an attempt to amend a bill he views as imperfect, a vote of “no” on policy as essential as the Surface Transportation bill is economic and legislative malpractice. But if he at least tries and if his amendment fails, then a “no” vote is acceptable.

Congress must show progress, and replenishing the Highway Trust Fund is one of the first real tests of this Congress’s ability to respond to the immediate and long-term needs of the public.

And next time you whip out your credit card for an alignment — thank those Congressmen who voted no.

Grand Rapids native Steve Carey is president of Potomac Strategic Development Co. in Washington, D.C.

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