The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bridges and budgets: The deep unreality of Republican transportation plans

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Every once in a while, you’re hit over the head with just how damaging the dysfunctional, unresponsive politics we live with today really are.

Here’s a headline from a Post article from yesterday: “With 61,000 bridges needing repair, states await action on Capitol Hill.”

And then there’s this budget analysis by my Center on Budget colleague David Reich: “House, Senate Budgets Have Big Cuts in Transportation Infrastructure.”

David points out that both of the budgets passed by the House and Senate “cut highway construction and other transportation infrastructure funding over the next decade by 28 percent and 22 percent, respectively, below the cost of maintaining current funding levels.” That is, they go in exactly the opposite direction that we need them to, given the state of our national transportation infrastructure.

In what has to be one of the deepest departures I’ve seen from the reality of our needs in this space, note the path of the yellow line above. That’s from the House budget, which calls for cutting mandatory transportation funding by almost 90 percent in 2016, from $54 billion to $6 billion. What, you may well ask, could they possibly be thinking?

They’re not thinking. All they’re doing is mindlessly setting spending equal to the obviously insufficient revenues coming into the Highway Trust Fund, the primary source of funding for transportation infrastructure. As I’ve written numerous times on this page, in yet another deep departure from reality, the gas tax that supports the HTF has been stuck at 18.3 cents per gallon since 1993. It has neither been adjusted for inflation, the growth of our population, the infrastructure it is supposed to pay for, nor the fact that today’s auto fleet gets much better mileage than that of 20 years ago.

So, if you’re Congress, you can do one of three things. You can do what they’ve been doing, and patch the problem by plugging the trust fund shortfall with various funding gimmicks to keep it going until the gimmicks run out. You could take the responsible step of actually raising the federal gas tax, since grownups should realize that you either can have a functional infrastructure for which you pay, or you can decide not to have one. But, as the evidence in the recent Post piece suggests, you can’t maintain a safe and productivity-enhancing infrastructure for which you do not pay.

The initial Senate budget cuts are less deep, but eventually they too just basically adapt to the drained trust fund by underfunding road and bridge maintenance, with a 10-year cut of $123 billion, or 22 percent.

Neither of these budgets will become law, but that shouldn’t assuage your concerns. What they tell you is that the congressional majority has no intention of dealing with the fact that the trust fund runs out at the end of May, at which point it’s … who knows? At best, we’re looking at another patch, which would mean continued uncertainty as states cannot confidently plan multi-year projects.

The U.S. economy is doing its best to break free from the residual drag of the Great Recession and congressional dysfunction. The last thing we need is headwinds from such budget plans as these. The first thing we need is a plan to rebuild and maintain a transportation infrastructure that is supposed to support the world’s largest and most productive economy. Without that plan, we may struggle to maintain not just our roads, but our world-class status.

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