In the modern political landscape, a particular ethos has developed that a do-nothing government is better than one that works to solve problems. There is some logic behind this, given the well-documented foibles of lawmakers at all levels, yet this line of thinking also can have negative consequences.
Consider the Highway Trust Fund. Founded in 1956 to help build the interstate highway system, the fund long has provided financing for highway construction and maintenance. Funded by the federal gas tax, which since 1993 has been 18.4 cents per gallon, the Highway Trust Fund is used exclusively for highway and transit projects throughout the country. Individual states plan and work on projects and then seek reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Transportation — until now. Last week, the federal government notified states that it would start limiting payments in an attempt to conserve the Highway Trust Fund, which is nearing insolvency, and President Obama had a few choice words about that.
“It’s not crazy, its not socialism, its not the imperial presidency. No laws are broken. We’re just building roads and bridges like we’ve been doing for the last, I don’t know, 50, 100 years,” Obama said. “But so far House Republicans have refused to act on this idea. I haven’t heard a good reason why they haven’t acted. Its not like they’ve been busy with other stuff. No seriously. I mean they’re not doing anything. Why don’t they do this?
“Republican obstruction is not just some abstract political stunt. It has real and direct consequences for middle-class families all across the country.”
That is the most important part of this fight over the Highway Trust Fund. Regardless of political affiliation or which party you think is to blame, the crisis engulfing the fund has a real-world impact. In Washington, for example, there are 43 highway projects totaling $29 million that could be impacted this summer by the federal shortfall — including a $950,000 paving project on Interstate 5 between Northeast 39th and 99th streets. If those projects don’t get completed, that’s not a matter of saving $29 million; it’s a matter of people not working and transportation improvements not being made. It’s a matter of stalemates in projects that could enhance commerce and the transportation of goods, thereby boosting the economy.
In announcing the slowdown of funds from the Trust Fund, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said states would see, on average, a 28 percent reduction in money: “Depending on how they manage the funds, each state will feel the effects differently, but everyone will feel the impact sooner or later.” Considering that roughly one-fourth of the nation’s bridges have been deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, scrimping on infrastructure is not wise at this time. And the Obama administration has exacerbated the ideological impasse by emphasizing mass transit over the more desirable and more necessary highway spending.
Congress must act soon to bolster the Highway Trust Fund. As the Washington Post wrote: “A big drop in federal transportation funds would strangle growth and force states to leave their transportation networks in a dangerous state of disrepair.” In recent years, lawmakers have approved about $50 billion in transfers from the general fund to plug holes in the highway fund, but sustainable solutions such as raising the federal gas tax have fallen victim to the ethos that has plagued so much of Washington, D.C. It’s one thing to be vigilant against unnecessary spending; it’s quite another to stop progress in its tracks.