An effort to move forward legislation in the Senate to pay for national transportation projects stalled today because Senate Republicans are insisting on spending cuts to match the funds we need to fix our roads, bridges and public transit.
It's more proof that congressional Republicans won't stop playing the zero-sum austerity game that has severely constrained economic growth and worsened our unemployment crisis. Addressing the nation's transportation crisis, in their view, can only happen by cutting other government programs – and not by asking those who use and profit most from our transportation networks to contribute more to their upkeep and expansion.
The Hill today called a decision by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to delay a committee vote on a $9 billion proposal to patch an imminent shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund "progress," but in reality it is anything but. The delay, The Hill reported, was to give the committee "extra time to address Republican concerns" – specifically, their demand that any increase in spending on transportation projects be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the Finance Committee's ranking Republican, said Wednesday that he could only agree to a transportation funding package if it includes “a significant number of spending cuts to go along with any revenue increases” — even in a temporary fix.
The development today follows more signs in the House and the Senate that the traditional support for federal transportation projects is fracturing. Sen Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was cited in The Hill as arguing that the federal government should consider getting out of the transportation funding business altogether. The National Journal adds that "many conservatives say it is time for Congress to consider “evolving” the federal government out of some transportation decisions and giving more authority to the states. They point to legislation such as bills introduced by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., that would phase out the federal gasoline tax and turn over most of the federal transportation program to the states."
The National Journal also quotes "a senior House Republican aide" as pooh-poohing an "SOS call" by Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) for urgent action on legislation to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money within the next few weeks and to extend federal transportation programs beyond their September 30 authorization.
“We’ve been through real crises—this is not one of those,” said a senior House Republican aide. “No highways are being shut down; nobody’s going to be stacking tires in the road. It just simply means that some projects will not get funded for a while.”
But Tony Dorsey, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials – which represents state departments of transportation – said that what Congress is dealing with is not just "some projects" not getting funded "for a while."
"What is at stake is hundreds of thousands of jobs at the height of the construction season," he said in an interview today. States depend on Highway Trust Fund reimbursements on a daily basis to cover the cost of their transportation projects, and "they don't have a huge cash cushion to float" if Congress fails to act.
The long-term stakes are spelled out on a website AASHTO created that presents basic facts about the nation's transportation crisis: 54 percent of America's roads are rated poor or mediocre. One in four of the nation's bridges are either in need of repair or are handling more traffic than they were designed to bear. Fifty-four percent of Americans don't have access to public transportation, even though 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. And while the nation would have seen a 30 percent increase in population between 1990 and 2020, the purchasing power of the money in the Highway Trust Fund – which is supplied by a gasoline tax that has not been raised since 1993 – has dropped 48 percent.
It is against this backdrop that congressional Republicans are refusing to raise any tax or spend any net additional dollars to provide for the public a transportation network that meets the public's needs.
There is not a shortage of ideas for how to responsibly pay for the improvements to our transportation infrastructure that we need. The jobs that would be created by a plan to improve that network at a time when long-term unemployment is an acute problem is justification enough to spend the money, even if it means a short-term increase in the deficit. What there is, at least among congressional Republicans, is an unwillingness to move beyond their failed ideology and adopt common-sense, bipartisan solutions that will grow the economy. It is time to tell congressional Republicans to stop looking for hostages and start embracing answers to the impending transportation crisis.