July 31 is a date with significance beyond being the Major League Baseball trading deadline, and the birthdays of Milton Friedman, J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and the author of this blog post. It's also the day that the Highway Trust Fund—the tank of federal money filled by the gas tax and ostensibly disbursed on maintaining the interstate highway system—runs out.
The Trust Fund runs out every year at this time, because Congress spends more of it than the gas tax brings in, and is too incompetent and/or terrified to either spend less, tax more, or allow for enough private-sector financing to cover the infrastructure shortfall. Even though federal transportation taxing-and-spending levels are supposed to be set in mammoth six-year legislative packages, what ends up happening instead is that Congress at the last minute finds some heretofore undeployed bandaid—say, the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund—to slap on the problem for another 12 months. Democrat-dominated, divided, Republican; the control of Congress does not matter here. This dysfunction and cowardice is what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is referring to when he says stuff like this:
I think it's a crummy way to run government. I think that lurching from deadline to deadline, showing up with two thousand page bills, nobody reads them, stuff gets stuck in by people in the dead of night, nobody has any idea what's in there, and they put stuff in there that's complicated and people should have a discussion. It should be transparent and the bottom line is the result's pretty poor. We have an $18 trillion debt, so I'm absolutely opposed to just the process itself and so I'm a no vote.
Paul in that case was talking about the already memory-holed "cromnibus" bill of last December, but the insight is transferable to the wretched way Congress has dealt with this week's Trust Fund deadline, including last night's initial Senate attempt to resurrect the righteously shuttered crony-capitalist machine known as the Export-Import Bank.
Good luck sorting through the parliamentary details of what the Senate will do next to try and jam through a transportation bill this week before the House (which previously passed a six-month extension) goes on August recess, though you can bet that we'll see the issue cross-pollinate with such wholly unrelated issues as the Ex-Im, and Planned Parenthood funding, and Obamacare, and God knows what else (including, possibly, giving the IRS power to revoke the passports of citizens owing more than $50,000 in back taxes).
What would a sane highway policy look like? Read the June 17 congressional testimony from Reason Foundation Director of Transporation Policy Robert Poole, titled "Rethinking the Highway Trust Fund." Here's the bullet-point summary:
1. Preserve and strengthen the users-pay/users-benefit principle on which the HTF was founded, and which remains the basis for most state highway programs.
2. Set meaningful priorities for the Highway Trust Fund, to balance spending with existing revenues.
3. Encourage state efforts to develop mileage-based user fee models that address the many current unknowns and concerns over this proposed transition.
4. Give states improved tools to make their existing transportation funding go further.
Last week, Poole also unveiled a relevant new study titled "Truck-Friendly Tolls for the 21st Century"; you can also read his recent article for the magazine, "Who's Going to Pay for New Highways?" That latter piece includes an important historical reminder that shouldn't get lost during the grotesque sausage-making on Capitol Hill this week: Namely, the Highway Trust Fund is being spent on all kinds of things that have nothing to do with highways. Check it out:
In 1982, the floodgates opened for spending highway funds on public transit. Highway advocates and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis wanted to double the gas tax, but President Ronald Reagan said he would veto such a bill….[U]rban mayors came to the rescue, persuading their members to support the legislation if 20 percent of the 5-cent-per-gallon increase was dedicated to mass transit. The revised bill passed and Reagan signed it.
Each successive reauthorization of the program since 1982 has expanded it further, eviscerating the original users-pay/users-benefit principle by spending "highway user tax revenue" on a large array of other purposes: transit capital and operating costs, sidewalks (Safe Routes to School), bike lanes (Complete Streets), recreational trails, landscaping, highway safety grants, environmental mitigation, historic preservation, etc. This all-things-to-all-people approach enables members of Congress to get credit for funding things that appeal to many constituent groups.
Last Tuesday I watched Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a New York Times "Cities for Tomorrow" event express bewilderment at Congress's inability to deal with the Highway Trust Fund in one breath, and then a few minutes later brag about how we're spending so much of that money on transit and non-highway projects! Why, it's as if the people who agitate for more government money are genuinely surprised that the management thereof becomes politicized.
In a very related development, some of the biggest laugh-lines during Foxx's transportation panel came at the expense of the sheer awfulness of New York's (Port Authority-owned) airports, and at the way public transportation projects around these parts tend to go just a wee bit over budget. But accepting those facts with a laugh and a shrug is an important part of the problem in the first place. Governments at all levels, and blue cities in particular, cannot do infrastructure right, in large part because the coalitions that elect politicians around these parts treat construction and maintenance and contracts and taxes like the mafia does: as guaranteed revenue streams to maximize.
Instead of confronting that problem head-on, politicians such as President Barack Obama just keep portraying the infrastructure gap as a failure of will, rather than a willful lack of desire to account for the billions already spent. Rather than process the detailed suggestions from pragmatic limited-government types, partisans blame the potholes in Democrat-dominated cities on powerless libertarians. We will not be able to maintain, let alone build, any infrastructure of significance, until these fantasies give way to something approaching policy realism.
Don't expect that any time soon, either from Congress or Anthony Foxx. Here's a recent pep talk from your Transporation Secretary's blog:
we know how to build this stuff, how to fix what we have and make the system better able to handle what's coming.
It's time to do what previous generations did. Find the mettle. Find the resolve.
Because if we don't dig in today, our children and grandchildren will be digging out tomorrow.
No, we don't know how to build this stuff anymore, is the issue. And until Congress finds the resolve to tackle that problem, they shouldn't get a drop more of our money.