In the world of highway repairs, the term "cold patch" refers to an asphalt mix that's used to temporarily fill potholes. Congress appears to be inching slowly toward its own version of a cold patch that would maintain funding for highway and transit projects for no more than now until the end of next May.
That would be perfectly adequate if the nation's only concern was the re-election of incumbent members of the House and Senate and letting them off without making any tough choices before November. But the federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money, and Washington may be forced to impose a 28 percent cut in transportation funding in a matter of a few weeks unless action is taken. That could stop some big-ticket projects dead in their tracks in the middle of the summer construction season.
The latest proposal in the House is a particularly odd jalopy of finance. Abandoning his last plan to tap savings from the U.S. Postal Service, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp is now pushing a $10.9 billion bill that draws money from pension reforms, custom fees and money set aside to fix leaking underground storage tanks.
The Senate approach by Finance Chairman Ron Wyden is better, but it's unclear whether his bipartisan bill is mustering sufficient support. The fix might also be temporary under his Preserving America's Transit and Highways Act, but at least it raises transportation-related taxes to do so, preserving the "user fee" nature of the trust fund.
What's really needed is a six-year authorization that raises money for transportation chiefly the way the U.S. has always done it in the past — by raising the federal gas tax, which is currently at the 1993 level of 18.4 cents per gallon. Last month, Sens. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat; and Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, proposed raising it by 12 cents per gallon (six cents per year for two years) and then allowing it to rise with inflation in the future.
That's gone nowhere, of course, but it's the only proposal on the table that comes close to addressing the problem. Opponents may dismiss it as a $164 billion tax increase, but, if anything, the proposal isn't big enough: The most recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the U.S. needs to invest $3.6 trillion in public infrastructure by 2020.
We know the usual objections. The tax is regressive and inflationary. It's also becoming less effective as fuel efficiency increases and Americans opt for hybrid cars and plug-ins that rely less on gasoline. But it's the best of the difficult choices available. Other alternatives like Maryland Rep. John Delaney's Partnership to Build America Act, which would tap overseas corporate earnings, could be helpful but only as part of a broader approach.
What's particularly frustrating is that most Americans accept that government has to spend money to build and maintain roads and transit. When transportation projects are placed on ballots, they tend to pass by big margins (about 75 percent voter approval in recent years, according to Transportation For America, an advocacy group). A majority of Americans polled by the American Automobile Association support raising the gas tax to improve roads, bridges and mass transit. In the same survey, more than two-thirds of respondents simply support the federal government spending more on such projects period.
Maryland raised the gas tax last year, and the political fall-out has been negligible. Gov. Martin O'Malley is likely to leave office next year with higher voter approval ratings than any ex-governor in decades. And the impact on gasoline prices has gone unnoticed as well — the latest AAA survey shows they're about the same as in surrounding states. Too bad President Barack Obama hasn't shown the political courage to endorse similar action on the federal level, proposing only a closing of tax loopholes to boost the trust fund.
Officials say Maryland's gas tax increase will, among other things, allow the state to weather the loss of federal funds for a month or two if Congress fails to act. Still, if a cold patch is the best this Congress can muster, it should at least not foreclose the opportunity to approve a more permanent fix in the lame duck session after November's elections.
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