At 10:00am Thursday morning, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works convened for a full committee hearing entitled “Impacts of Expected Highway Trust Fund Insolvency.” The hearing was a piece of the discussion surrounding the reauthorization of the transportation bill. So far, most of the action has been in the House, where Jim Oberstar’s (D-MN) Transportation & Infrastructure Committee just released its proposed $500 billion plan this past Monday, which includes all sorts of progressive transit goodies. However, right from the start, the focus of the criticism of the bill hasn’t been on content, but rather on funding: no one has any idea where the $500 billion is coming from. In fact, in the hearing this morning, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) indicated that the Senate may side with the adminsitration in asking for an 18-month “clean” extension of the current transportation bill in order to sort the whole thing out.
While this is quite the bummer, she does raise a good point. Even allies of progressive transit options have been forced to take a step back and consider their funding sources. Transportation is expensive, whether you’re building highways or subways, and the whole situation is made all the more complicated by an administration that refuses to raise the gas tax.
Declining gas tax revenue due to a decline in vehicle miles over the past year has lead the Highway Trust Fund to the brink of insolvency. Of course the government would never allow the Trust to collapse (nor should it) so we’re probably going to see a healthy infusion of general funds to keep it running. But that won’t solve the long term problem.
Then, on top of questions concerning the transportation bill and the HTF, we have the comments issued earlier this week by Susan A. Fleming, the director of the Physical Infrastructure Issues department at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), on the Obama administration’s high speed rail plans (PDF). All in all, Ms. Fleming found them to be unconvincing, mostly because no long-term, dedicated funding source (a la the HTF) was named and this is going to be a very expensive project. And this from a department that fully backed the idea of heavy investment in HSR a few months ago.
It seems that transportation funding woes are the theme of the week and that nobody has an answer. But I’m always a little irked when I hear about cash shortages for worthy projects in Washington. We have the money, we do, it’s just a matter of prioirties (see: the F-22 debacle). The creation of a national infrastructure bank would certainly help development, but secure, dedicated funding streams are going to be needed to cover long-term operating costs.