Accessibility links


Effort to Fund US Highways Hits Congressional Potholes

  • Michael Bowman

File - Smoke rises in the background as a motorist drives down Larimer County Highway 74W as a wildfire burns, near Livermore, Colorado.

File - Smoke rises in the background as a motorist drives down Larimer County Highway 74W as a wildfire burns, near Livermore, Colorado.

As Congress prepares to adjourn for a month-long August recess, the House and Senate are pursuing different and conflicting tracks to fund the nation’s overburdened highway system and other transportation needs.

Federal spending authority on highways expires Friday, and projects to fix and maintain some of America’s busiest thoroughfares will come to a halt unless Congress acts in coming days.

The Senate is working on a six-year transportation bill that could include a measure to revive the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which suspended operations at the end of last month.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, has passed a five-month extension of highway funding – the latest in a series of stop-gap extensions amid congressional wrangling over the nation’s long-term transportation needs and how to pay for them.

The House has not acted on the Export-Import Bank, which helps foreign customers finance the purchase of American-made goods, and the chamber’s Republican leadership is ruling out House consideration of any Senate-passed multi-year highway funding with or without Export-Import Bank provisions attached.

“We’re not taking up the Senate bill,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

No more short-term fixes

Such declarations are not deterring key senators working towards a final vote this week.

“If we have a bill, we’re sending it [to the House],” said Senator Barbara Boxer, the top Democrat on the public works committee that produced the six-year highway bill. “If the House chooses to go out on vacation, that’s their business. But it’s our job to fix the problems we are facing.”

Boxer noted that, in addition to a national highway system falling into disrepair, much of America’s transportation infrastructure is either crumbling or outdated. She read a long list of bridges in need of maintenance, including iconic structures like New York’s Brooklyn Bridge and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Given such needs, she decried any further short-term extensions of transportation funding like the House-passed bill.

“We just keep patching up the Highway Trust Fund. And our states are stopping [work on projects],” said Boxer.

Dawning determination

For more than two decades, federal highway funding has come from a 19-cent tax on each gallon of gasoline sold in the country — roughly five cents per liter. That tax has not been adjusted for inflation, meaning that the real purchasing power of the resulting revenue has declined every year. In addition, better fuel economy in today’s vehicles has allowed many Americans to buy less gasoline overall.

The end result is a federal highway fund that lawmakers of both parties admit is underfunded even before any cut-off of spending authority. Congress has been unable to agree on new sources of revenue, given Republican opposition to tax hikes and Democratic opposition to siphoning funds from other federal programs.

Even so, there is growing bipartisan recognition among lawmakers that the status quo is unacceptable and a source of growing irritation to their constituents.

“Infrastructure projects important to the people we represent are on the line,” said the Senate’s Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “So we’ve got to get this done.”