When members of Congress climbed into trains, planes and automobiles for a five-week hiatus from Washington last week, one phrase probably rang through their heads: “kicking the can down the road.”
An apt metaphor for what they had just done with transportation funding, the phrase was invoked dozens of times that final week on the floor of both houses, in newspaper editorials and by advocacy groups.
What they hear from folks back home may come as a tacit endorsement for more of the same, based on the findings of a new Associated Press poll. Though most Americans say they think roads, rail lines and airports are important, they’d rather not to pay more for them.
The easiest fast fix to bolster the sagging Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and transit projects, would be to increase the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. Just 12 percent of those surveyed said they favored that option, according to the new AP-GfK poll, while 58 percent said they were opposed.
“It’s hardly surprising that the public isn’t clamoring to pay more for the road projects they want, but that means it’s up to lawmakers to make tough decisions and lead,” said Stephen Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Kicking the transportation funding can down the road is no longer an option because lawmakers are running out of gimmicky offsets. They either have to increase revenue through gas taxes, vehicle miles traveled, or reduce spending. Funding shouldn’t be coming through the general fund or tax holiday on foreign profits.”
Ellis said the trust-fund crisis was a microcosm of the federal budget.
“The public wants a lot more government and services than they are willing to pay for,” he said.
Despite all the protests about can-kicking, that’s just what Congress did before leaving town, using accounting gimmicks to find $10.8 billion in cash that will keep transportation money flowing until May 31. There’s no chance of movement on the issue before the November election, but Senate Democrats plan to push for a long-term funding solution during the lame-duck session.
Nothing in the AP survey will help lawmakers decide which option they should get behind in redefining the way the nation pays for transportation. The trust fund can’t keep up with need and would have run into the red this month were it not for last week’s eleventh-hour cash extension.
The survey revealed that people are aware of the problem. A third said roads and bridges were getting worse. More than half said congestion had increased in the past five years. And 60 percent said transportation systems were important to the economy.
But in addition to opposing a gas-tax increase, the survey found that the public doesn’t support several of the other options on the table. By more than 2 to 1, respondents said they were against private-public partnerships like the one that built Virginia’s High Occupancy Toll lanes because private investors have the right to charge tolls.
Just 20 percent said they favored revolutionizing the system to charge drivers for each mile they travel, while 40 percent said they were against that.
Shifting more responsibility for taxation and project selection to state and local governments — an approach favored by some Republicans — won support from just 30 percent of those surveyed.
“No one should be surprised by a poll finding people aren’t willing to pay more for something they’re already getting at a big discount,” said Brian P. McGuire, president of Associated Equipment Distributors. “My read is that Americans understand the benefits of infrastructure but don’t understand how it’s paid for. We can either do that the responsible way — raising the gas tax or creating other new user-fee revenues — or we can continue to pass the buck to our kids and grandkids.”
A regular reference in discussions of transportation funding is Alaska’s infamous “bridge to nowhere.” Experts say many people think that without “fraud, waste and abuse,” another frequently used phrase, transportation dollars would stretch further.
“The bridge to nowhere has affected federal transportation funding,” said Pete Ruane, president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. “But when it comes to referendums on the local and state level, 73 percent of projects have been approved. People don’t see them as sending their money down a rathole.”
Ruane said too many on Capital Hill were “poll-iticians” rather than politicians.
“That’s not leadership,” he said.