Political Brakes Halt Transportation Progress

The Chinese are investing in high speed rail, while Congress dithers on how to maintain American roads and bridges.Don't expect any action in Congress this year on a major transportation bill. A sharply divided Congress is unlikely to approve a gas tax increase or any alternative, which leaves the legislation bogged down just like a motorist on a congested freeway.

Few argue there about the need to upgrade America's infrastructure, which the American Society for Civil Engineers grades out at a "D." Highway safety experts blame deteriorating or unimproved roads and bridges for half of the nation's car crashes.

Where the rubber doesn't meet the political road is how to pay for improvements.

Raising the federal gas tax is unpopular at a time when motorists are already squawking about the high price of gas at the pump. The Senate Finance Committee is rolling around some alternatives such as a fee on vehicle miles travelled, expansion of public-private partnerships and creation of a national infrastructure bank.

The Congressional Budget Office provides a more sobering set of options:

  • The federal government can continue to collect the same level of federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon), which would result in $13 billion of reduced annual transportation spending because of more fuel-efficient cars and less travel because of high gas prices.
  • The federal government could maintain its current transportation spending levels, but that would require increasing the gas tax or imposing some other form to raise $13 billion per year.
  • Maintaining the performance level of the current highway system would require an additional $14 billion per year, or about 14 cents per gallon more in federal gas tax rates.
  • Funding projects with benefits that exceed costs, which would require an estimated $50 billion more than existing spending levels – and a 50-cent gas tax increase.

And this just addresses roads, not air, rail, marine and transit needs.

For Members of Congress focused on debt reduction and the fallout of budget plans, a serious conversation about transportation is pretty much off the table, even though transportation spending remains one of the most proven ways government can stimulate job growth.