Three months ago, much of the industry was anxiously awaiting some Congressional solution for the almost depleted Highway Trust Fund and the longer term problem of critically needed infrastructure repair. The then current funding was set to expire May 31, when the extension of the previous extension was due to expire. Unable to agree on any long term legislation, Congress once again passed a patchwork extension which expired July 31. Various legislators said they simply needed more time to develop a good long term solution. Skeptics could be forgiven since this was the 33rd extension since 2009.
During the past two years there have been a number of mostly politically motivated but inadequate suggestions, including devolution, or simply shifting the entire funding mechanism back to the states. Because of Congressional inaction, several states have already moved ahead, increasing their own fuel taxes and starting infrastructure improvements in their states. With 65% of the nation’s roads rated in less than good condition they feel they have no choice but to act independently. The disadvantage to these individual projects is that they do not necessarily contribute to an improved national network. They are simply the ones that are best for the states.
As uncomfortable as it might be for some of us, the logical solution is to increase fuel taxes which have been at the same level since 1993. Senator Corker (R-Tennessee) introduced such legislation, but no one else in Washington wants to touch that “hot potato”. President Obama has said that he will veto any legislation that calls for an increase in the taxes, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) says the House is not considering it.
As July 31 approached, Congress wasn’t any closer to an agreement than they were a year ago. Citing the necessity for more time to develop a good long term solution, they passed the 34th extension of the past six years. Sound familiar? The bill approved $8 million for the Highway Trust Fund and will expire on December 18, 2015. This legislation was initially hastily passed by the House just before their August recess, and was concurred in reluctantly by the Senate.
In the meantime, the Senate also passed a six-year highway bill, but since it has not been considered by the House, no agreement can even be discussed until September when Congress returns to work.
Even the Senate bill is inadequate since they could only find funding for the first three years. The money they have allocated is coming from some rather obscure sources such as “reduced spending” and reduced dividend rates to large banks. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) however, called it “a win for our country”. I may be politically naïve but I don’t see a win for anyone until the Senate, House, and President all agree on a well-funded, long term solution.
Bottom line, we still are a long way from solving a serious problem. Roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, and money gets tighter. The DOT projects will need $120 billion between 2015 and 2020. Hopefully, in September, good, productive judgement will prevail.