The Curious Case of the Missing Rabbit

LattaConsider the situation of the magician who moves smoothly into the rabbit-out-of-a-top-hat trick. His preparation is designed to convey the impression of a skilled professional negotiating a tense preamble that must be done just right to build tension in his audience. The thrill is in the anticipation. The rabbit, even though we know its coming, is a surprise. It’s an act, but it delivers.

This time the audience is not particularly ready to believe. They don’t think there’s a rabbit in there. Even the magician is a little concerned but he tries not to show it. Maybe a rabbit will appear, after all this is supposed to be a magic act.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the delay in passing a new surface transportation act is the curious idea held in the administration and the senate that a delay, perhaps as long as a year and a half, will allow people in Washington to find surprising, innovative and paradigm-changing ways to pay for it. That rabbit is missing.

Back in the summer in Washington I listened to Janet Kavinoky, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior lobbyist and policy expert on transportation infrastructure, point out the obvious: If there were some unthought-of new ways to finance the Highway Trust Fund we would have thought of them, she said. That’s not hubris, that’s reality and the Chamber is not alone in thinking this way. Two commissions studied ways to fund reauthorization and presented detailed findings. Associations such as the American Road and Transportation Builders Association spent a vast amount of time, money and talent addressing the funding problem. The hat is empty.

 Here’s a bet: whatever provisions the final reauthorization legislation contains it will not bedazzle us with fascinating and unheard of new ways to fund the HTF.

Fuel taxes (which are essentially user fees) work and they will be the basis of the new bill. You the people have also backed the idea of such user fees to fund infrastructure in recent elections. Down the road we’ll need a steady increase in funds from alternative sources.

Taxes on oil trades, vehicle miles travelled charges, increasing privatization, tolls and other user fees are out there on the table even if the White House says they aren’t. We know about these, how they work and what their potential is. But right now we need new legislation based on today’s reality.

If all the magician can pull out of the hat is a hamster masquerading as a rabbit, why are we waiting? The rabbit is AWOL and magician is stalling.v