No time for a victory lap on highway funding

Wes Stowers
Wes Stowers

Just before the May 31 deadline, Congress approved another short-term continuing resolution to prop up the beleaguered Highway Trust Fund for another sixty days. This was just another band-aid in a long string of short-term continuing resolutions that Congress has passed to keep federal transportation funding from coming to a halt. Congress hasn’t passed a long-term federal transportation funding bill since 2005, resulting in ongoing chaos throughout the country for those responsible for building and maintaining our nation’s critical transportation network. State highway departments have no way of knowing future levels of funding without a multi-year federal transportation bill.

The Highway Trust Fund is broke, with incoming federal gas tax revenue no longer sufficient to pay for ongoing funding obligations to the states’ departments of transportation. For the past several years, Congress has been supplementing federal gas tax revenue with money from the general tax fund, increasing our federal deficit and still not addressing our nation’s long-term transportation needs. Congress’ failure to pass a multi-year transportation bill is simply irresponsible. In Tennessee, roughly 62 percent of our overall funding for highway and bridge construction and maintenance comes from the federal Highway Trust Fund. While Congress took the right step to avert an imminent cash flow crisis by keeping transportation dollars flowing to the states for sixty more days, it’s hardly time for a victory lap.

The Highway Trust Fund has been teetering on the financial brink because revenues flowing into it haven’t kept pace with the increased transportation investment levels approved by Congress. The federal gasoline tax has not been increased since 1993, and inflation and rising materials costs have eroded its purchasing power by nearly 40 percent. Imagine if you had not received a raise in more than 20 years. Do you think you could support today’s cost of living with 1993 dollars?

On six separate occasions since 2008, Congress has chosen to ignore the core problem underlying the nation’s surface transportation network. Instead, it has bailed out the Highway Trust Fund with budgetary “smoke and mirrors” that have cost taxpayers nearly $65 billion. These short-term patches are fiscally irresponsible and contrary to the pay-as-you-go principle established in 1956 when President Eisenhower signed the law creating the Highway Trust Fund and the Interstate Highway System.

Night PavingThe continued fiscal uncertainty about the Highway Trust Fund has caused many state transportation departments to cancel or delay needed highway and bridge improvement projects. This, in turn, has real world implications on the highway construction industry, which employs more than 31,000 people in Tennessee. We are much less likely to hire workers, purchase new equipment or make other capital investment decisions if we don’t have any predictability about the future.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. All options to generate new transportation revenues, including those identified by scores of private and public sector reports, congressional and presidential “blue ribbon” commissions should be on the table. The solutions are there. It’s now about political will. The longer it takes for extremists on both sides of the aisle to reach an agreement, the more they are causing lasting harm to our nation’s economy and competitiveness.

I urge our Congressmen and Senators to do their jobs this summer and reach a bipartisan agreement that provides a sustainable solution for the Highway Trust Fund so we can begin making meaningful improvements to our state’s infrastructure network. The future of our economy, mobility and quality of life all depend on it.