Americans are about to find out whether Congress can act when it must to keep from idling highway construction projects across the country.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned states last week that the federal highway trust fund soon will have less than $4 billion in it, leading to reduced federal aid for road and transit as soon as early August. By the end of next month, the fund could be on empty and several hundred thousand jobs could be at risk nationwide.
The problem is that the federal 18.4-cent-a-gallon gasoline and 24.4-cent-a-gallon diesel taxes have been unchanged since 1993, while fuel efficiency has improved. And many in Congress are growing weary of the practice since 2008 of replenishing the federal highway trust fund with dollars from the federal Treasury – especially without making spending cuts elsewhere.
The Kansas Department of Transportation, which is halfway through its $7.8 billion T-Works transportation plan, receives $364 million a year in federal funds. KDOT spokesman Steve Schwartz told the Lawrence Journal-World that because Kansas has dedicated funding sources other than federal funds, it could go three to six months before there would be any impact on its construction program.
That just buys Kansas more time amid what soon could be a full-blown national crisis, though.
When Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., met with The Eagle editorial board last week, he said “there is no serious proposal out there” for what to do about the trust fund, which needs Congress to act in the short window before its August recess.
The Senate Finance Committee’s $9 billion short-term fix recently stalled over the proposal to raise taxes on heavy trucks and the GOP push for spending cuts.
Moran is among those who don’t favor a House GOP proposal to shore up the highway money with “savings” from ending Saturday mail delivery. And no wonder – the House already has nixed a cutback to five-day delivery, which the U.S. Postal Service had sought to help its own troubled finances.
Other ideas in the mix seem like political nonstarters as well, including those of Democrats aimed at closing tax loopholes and targeting “companies that are shipping their profits overseas,” as the president put it last week.
Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., would raise the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon – a sensible-sounding plan that former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, now president of the American Trucking Associations, said would “put the highway trust fund on the path to solvency and provide the revenues we need to maintain a 21st-century transportation network.”
But tax increases are harder than ever to sell on Capitol Hill. Election year or not, though, it’s time for Congress to demonstrate that it can still function when it has to – in this case to keep road crews working, commerce moving and drivers safe.