When political reality hits a bump in the road

When you drive around Western New York after a long hard winter like the last one, you see and sometimes feel the impact of that harsh weather. Pot holes abound. Main Street in Buffalo near the UB South Campus was particularly bad, or maybe I noticed it more since I often pass through that area.

Or maybe you’re driving on the Thruway or another highway and you pass under a bridge. You see rusting girders and concrete chipping off and you wonder how safe that bridge really is.

The stretch of Main Street near UB was recently resurfaced and the traveling is much better. But the milling work and the resurfacing did not come cheap. There are plenty other similar projects going on around here right now.

Our road system in the United States is a web of federal, state and local roads. The feds have traditionally carried the biggest share of the costs. Some of the money Washington collects works its way down to the state and local levels.

Most of the federal money comes from a tax on gasoline (18.4 cents per gallon) and diesel fuel (24.4 cents per gallon). The federal fuel tax is not indexed to inflation and has not been increased since 1993. Vehicles are more fuel-efficient than they were 20 years ago, so the volume of gas used has not gone up much. But the needs for the money keep growing bigger as our infrastructure deteriorates.

Several years ago I was a participant in a Buffalo Niagara Partnership committee that was looking at transportation system needs in the Buffalo area. At one particular meeting a long and very expensive list of projects was discussed and there was a lot of support for asking Congress to come up with money for that work. The Highway Trust Fund, whose revenues come from the fuel taxes, was already on life-support at that time. So I asked a simple question: was that committee prepared to endorse an increase in the fuel tax to help pay for those projects? The response was mainly silence. I don’t recall being notified about any more meetings of that committee.

The recent tragedy on the Scajaquada Expressway has highlighted studies about re-designing that road to calm the traffic. While some quick steps were taken at relatively low cost to make safety improvements, the fact is that a full-scale re-do of that road would cost more than $100 million.

There also continue to be discussions about providing a deck over the Martin Luther King Jr./Kensington Expressway. Anyone who remembers the beauty of Humboldt Parkway in its heyday misses what was once there. But a decking project would cost well-over $100 million

Now multiply the needed local highway work by the thousands of other communities in the country.

The interstate highway system that we have in the United States was the result of the work of President Eisenhower. His military service demonstrated to him how essential such a system is to the economic well-being of the country.

A Washington Post article recently reviewed the efforts of President Reagan in 1982 to promote an increase in the federal fuel taxes to fund improvements in the transportation system. The tax got approved through the work of Reagan and a bi-partisan group of House and Senate members. A link to the Post article about Reagan’s efforts is at the bottom of this post.

So now fast forward from the days of Eisenhower and Reagan to the Congress of the United States in 2015. The federal highway bill was last approved as a long-term (6 year) planning and funding vehicle in 2005. Since then Congress has patched up some temporary fixes to keep the Highway Trust Fund going. Think of it as the cold patch that highway crews throw into the worst of the pot holes until weather permits a real re-build to be done. Cold patches do not last very long. Congress before the end of July may pass the thirty-fourth “cold patch” fix for the Trust Fund in recent years.

They will do that because Congress as a collective body has generally lacked the ability and courage to raise the fuel tax to pay for the highway and bridge work that needs to be done. These are not either-or funding issues. The road and bridge problems will not get better by ignoring them. This is a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later situation.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Mitch McConnell today announced a “deal” to re-fund the Highway Trust Fund for six years; Mrs. Boxer describes it as “an agreement in principle.” The doubting Thomas in me, however, tells me that this will just be the latest in a long string of such “deals.”  No details were provided about where the money would come from when the agreement was announced,  and the deal would only fund highways for three of the six years, leaving it to the next Congress to figure it out from there.  Unfortunately for Senators McConnell and Boxer there were not sufficient votes (just 41) in the Senate this afternoon to advance their bill.  There are just 10 days left before the Fund tanks.

Congress is controlled by the Republican Party, the party that reveres Ronald Reagan for his fiscal conservatism. The same Ronald Reagan who raised the fuel tax in 1982 (along with several other taxes during his terms in office).

It should be noted that neither President George W. Bush nor President Barack Obama attempted to raise the fuel taxes, although that may be due to the intransigence of Congress.

The problem is that after Reagan left office, someone apparently died and left Grover Norquist in charge. Norquist is the head of an anti-tax group. Norquist has been able to get most Republican candidates for federal office to sign his pledge promising to never ever raise a tax.

Norquist evidently has begun to realize that the doctrinaire anti-tax position is creating problems for the highway bill, so he is beginning to think that the fuel tax is not a tax – it’s a fee! Getting Norquist to finesse this stuff is more complicated than getting a pope to re-think theology.

No one wants to pay a dime more in taxes than they need to, so there is nothing wrong with challenging government taxes and spending. But there are, as a friend of mine once pointed out to me, some “adult” expenses in life that cannot be avoided. For a homeowner it might be like putting a new roof on a house. It gives you no pleasure but such things cannot be avoided. Like getting a fuel tax increase passed to pay for the road and bridge expenses that cannot be avoided.