Incredible as it seems, the nation's most important source of surface transportation funding was allowed to lapse at the beginning of this month for the first time in its history, due to a bizarre argument at the federal level in which, somehow, both sides were simultaneously right -- and dead wrong.
On one side of the argument, a single senator took a stand for actually paying for core government responsibilities and against continuing to descend further into debt. People on the other side of the argument said it was irresponsible to allow funding for programs that are universally supported, such as unemployment benefits, COBRA and transportation, to be shut off just so the Senator could score political points.
Both sides are right.
Where they are both wrong is that neither side has stepped forward to offer solutions to actually fund our government, including transportation.
Historically, the federal government has funded surface transportation through six-year authorization bills. The most recent, known by the acronym SAFETEA-LU (for Surface Transportation Efficiency and Accountability Act -- a Legacy for Users), expired on September 30th of last year. Since that time Congress has passed short-term measures to keep the program afloat for one or two months at a time, to buy time until Congress could get down to its business of passing a multi-year authorization.
The most recent short-term measure expired on February 28th, and attempts to extend the program by 30 more days were held up when U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., filibustered. This led to a shutdown in reimbursements to states for highway projects and transit programs. About 2,000 federal transportation department employees were furloughed.
Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded to Bunning's actions by stating, "As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country. This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed."
Mr. LaHood, of course, was right.
Senator Bunning defended himself by saying, "There are going to be other bills brought to this floor that are not going to be paid for, and I'm going to object every time they do it .... I have got too many young grandchildren that want America to be the same America that I grew up in. And I'm worried to death that that's not going to be the case."
Mr. Bunning made a very valid point.
Because both are right and wrong, though, we must turn our attention to solving the larger problem that this argument illustrated. And to do that, we have to return to more responsible times. While coming up with enough money in a responsible manner may be more difficult for other portions of the budget, it is actually quite simple when it comes to funding transportation. We simply need to charge users of the transportation system a fee that actually reflects the cost to maintain and upgrade that system. The user fee we currently have in place -- the federal gas tax -- remains at 18.4 cents a gallon, which is the same amount it was at in 1993 when gas prices were at $1.11 per gallon.
In 1983, when the country was struggling to come out of a recession, President Reagan increased the gas tax by 5 cents stating, "We simply cannot allow this magnificent system to deteriorate beyond repair. The time has come to preserve what past Americans spent so much time and effort to create."
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed another 5 cent increase in the gas tax. In 1993 President Clinton signed a 4.3 cent increase in the gas tax.
As evidenced by the actions of these three presidents, it was not that long ago that our leaders recognized that we all have a responsibility to pay for our transportation system.
Today, it has been deemed as more practical in the political sense to keep infusing money from our deficit-laden general fund in uncoordinated, halting and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to keep things moving than it would be to pass a multi-year authorization that actually raises the necessary revenue to efficiently plan and maintain a national system.
And yet a federal gas-tax increase of a dime a gallon would cost the average family only about $9 a month. And it would be an equitable and responsible way to fund the safer and more economically beneficial transportation system we all need and deserve.
Some of the problems that face our nation in this day and age are truly confounding. Solving our transportation mess simply isn't one of them.
-- Thompson is executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.