Dodging an unpleasant reality
While the news media and political partisans obsessed over the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of Obamacare in late June, a House/Senate conference committee ended a 1,000-day-plus national disgrace by agreeing to a two-year (actually, 27-month) transportation act.
The new act ended several years of short term extensions of the previous transportation program, a period of uncertainty during which state departments of transportation avoided launching major rehabilitation and rebuilding projects – the type of work that employs large numbers of heavy construction firms and workers.
While the conference committee principles issued grand pronouncements of the epic significance of MAP-21 (Moving Ahead For Progress in the 21st Century), construction industry representatives were much more measured in their response to the new program.
Pete Ruane, President and CEO of ARTBA (American Road & Transportation Builders Association), acknowledged the stability the new program brings to transportation, but added, “The bad news is there is no new money.”
That, of course, is what all the delay has been about. All real solutions to our highway problems begin and end with the need for more investment. The federal fuel tax, which funds the highway program, is a flat tax (18.4-cents per gallon) that hasn’t been raised for nearly 20 years. Tax increases, even a fuel tax increase, are viewed as political suicide today. And so our leaders have postured and preened for three years while only pretending to solve our road problem.
MAP-21 is not a victory for anyone. Nor is it an accomplishment.
More’s the pity. When a divided Congress like this one is willing to confront problems, intelligent and long lasting solutions are possible. Flawed as it is, MAP-21 provides a taste of that potential.
To get a bill, conferees had to shed the legislation of encumbrances like the Keystone pipeline that, while important, are not part of the transportation challenge. Then the sides – left and right, House and Senate – sifted through an agenda of wickedly divided points of view to arrive at a series of pragmatic compromises. House conservatives relented on strict fiscal discipline and the duration of the bill (the House bill was another short term extension), while liberals and moderates gave ground on environmental streamlining and allowing states more flexibility in how they invest federal funds.
Unfortunately, because the spirit of constructive compromise was never applied to a realistic funding solution, MAP-21 is not a legislative landmark. It is just another monument to a nation and a congress that no longer believes in itself. A two-year bill is better than a six-month extension, but far short of the five or six year program we need. Funding levels of $40 billion a year fall $10 billion short of the national need by the most conservative estimates, and even at that anemic level have to be subsidized by general revenues, adding to the deficit pressure on the federal budget.
MAP-21 is not a victory for anyone. Nor is it an accomplishment. It is a question: How will we ever solve unpleasant problems if we are not willing to pursue unpleasant solutions together?