As the new Congress convenes, pressure is on legislators to keep transportation dollars flowing. The current transportation law, MAP-21, expires in just four months in May 2015.
Because people have been driving less while vehicles are more fuel efficient, the federal gas tax is no longer sufficient to generate enough money to support the current level of transportation spending. Plus, the gas tax hasn’t been increased in decades, while the costs to build and maintain transportation infrastructure have increased. It’s estimated that Congress needs to find another $13 billion per year just to keep transportation at current levels.
Over the past several weeks, a number of members of Congress have floated different mechanisms for funding transportation. The most commonly cited funding solutions include:
- Repatriation: Senators Boxer (D-CA) and Paul (R-KY) have introduced legislation that would lower corporate tax rates to prompt corporations to bring their overseas earnings back to the U.S. The one-time tax windfall would be funneled into the Highway Trust Fund. This is also the funding mechanism that the President's 2016 budget proposes to support a six-year transportation reauthorization with increased funding. Opponents are concerned that this is would only be a short-term funding solution.
- Increasing the gas tax: While in the past, any mention of increasing the gas tax has been off-limits, the falling gas prices have opened the door a crack. Often, proposals for a gas tax increase are paired with discussion of cutting lower- or middle-class taxes. However, a group of 50 conservative groups have written Congress opposing any increase in the gas tax.
- Energy production: Increasing the amount of oil drilling and other energy production could produce new revenue from royalties that could be directed to the Highway Trust Fund.
At a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing earlier this week, US Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urged members of Congress to set politics aside to find a solution to stabilize transportation spending.
Realistically, Congress may end up with a combination of these and other ideas to generate the money necessary to sustain transportation spending. Whether consensus can be reached before the May deadline is an open question; we may well end up with another series of extensions past May while Congress reaches an agreement.
Given the shortfall in transportation funding, we are concerned about the potential for proposals to close the gap by cutting transportation spending through eliminating transit, bicycling and walking from the trust fund. We will continue to build support on Capitol Hill for the Transportation Alternatives Program, which includes Safe Routes to School spending, and allowing states and localities to continue to spend transportation dollars on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. We will almost certainly need your help in the coming months to stand up for Safe Routes to School; stay tuned for future calls to action!