In Our View: Stop Kicking Can, Fix Roads

Congress must cease stopgap measures and find long-term transportation fix

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Inactive lawmakers? A do-nothing Congress? Balderdash! Why, members of Congress demonstrated just last week that they are particularly adept at exercising their legs as they kick the can down the road.

That’s metaphorical, of course. But the stalemates that have marked the 113th Congress too often have been resolved by stopgap measures rather than solutions — ideas guaranteeing only that lawmakers in the not-so-distant future will have to tackle the same problems. Consider how a failure to address immigration reform helped create the current crisis along the country’s southern border. Or consider a bill to place a Band-Aid on the Highway Trust Fund, which was sent to President Barack Obama on Thursday before lawmakers embarked upon a five-week vacation.

The Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by a federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, provides money to states for transportation projects. The fund is running out of cash, leading many states to delay projects this summer or halt them in the midst of construction. In Washington, there are 43 current projects supported by the Highway Trust Fund.

The insolvency of the fund long has been apparent. The federal gas tax has remained unchanged since 1993, and inflation and gas-efficient vehicles have created a situation in which that money doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to. Yet Congress managed to ignore the problem until it became dire.

Once that happened, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to prop up the highway fund until May. The Democrat-controlled Senate pushed for a solution that would last until December with the hope that a six-year funding plan could be passed at that time. But, facing their impending vacation, senators acquiesced and voted 81-13 to adopt the House solution.

Which, it turns out, is no solution whatsoever. First of all, gas prices typically increase in May in anticipation of the summer driving season, meaning that taxpayers will be particularly sensitive to any proposal to raise the gas tax at that point. Second of all, as The Associated Press asserts, “the measure relies on a provision known as pension ‘smoothing’ that is widely derided as a gimmick by budget experts.” This provision will raise $6.4 billion by allowing companies to reduce the amount they contribute now to pension funds and make up for it later.

In other words, the can has been kicked down the road in hopes that it will simply vanish. As The Washington Post wrote editorially, “Too many members of Congress are too cowardly or too shortsighted to accept the viable solutions in front of them.” This is an ongoing problem, and it’s one that contributes to Congress’ miniscule approval rating. Stopgap measures based upon questionable accounting tricks do not equate a solution.

At the heart of the issue is a philosophical debate. Democrats believe the federal government should continue to play a central role in transportation funding. But if Republicans win control of both the House and the Senate in the November election, they might push for more state control over raising and spending money for roads. This is a debate worth having, but it would be misguided to suggest that how one state provides for road funding has no impact on neighboring states. The economy in, say, Washington is somewhat dependent upon the ability to transport goods through Oregon and Idaho.

For too long, this nation has ignored infrastructure maintenance, to the point where it is becoming a critical issue. It is time to stop focusing on kicking the can and start thinking about improving the road.