Newspapers take dim view of highway funding stopgap

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Major newspaper editorial boards are giving harsh reviews to a nearly $11 billion transportation funding stopgap bill that is moving through Congress.

The measure, which is intended to extend infrastructure spending into next spring, was approved by the House on Tuesday in a 367-55 vote. The Senate is expected to take the measure up as early as next week.

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Several major national newspapers took lawmakers to task on Wednesday for relying on funding sources that are not related to transportation to pay for a short round of new road and transit spending. 

"You wouldn't raid your 401(k) to put a temporary patch on a hole in your driveway. But that's essentially the approach the House took Tuesday when, in a telling display of absurdity, it decided to fund highway construction by letting employers endanger their workers' retirement," USA Today wrote in an editorial.

The transportation bill that was approved by the House relies on “pension smoothing” — a proposal that budget experts across the ideological spectrum have dubbed a gimmick — and boosting customs fees to generate $10.9 billion that will be used to extend federal highway funding until May 2015.

The measure counts on revenue that is anticipated to come from those policies over the next 10 years to offset the money that will be spent over the next eight months.

The USA Today editorial accused lawmakers of undermining "the long-term viability of private pension plans, mainly because majority Republicans are dogmatically afraid of raising taxes, at any time, for any purpose."

"When pension plans go belly up, lives will be ruined, and the government will be stuck with part of the bill. But the legislators engineering this fiasco will be long gone," the paper wrote.

The Department of Transportation has warned for months while Congress has been debating that the Highway Trust Fund is going to run out of money next month unless Congress approves legislation now to plug the hole. 

The agency told lawmakers that the U.S. could lose 700,000 construction jobs and states would have to take a 28 percent funding cut if the highway fund is allowed to go broke. 

The usual funding source for transportation projects is revenue that is collected from the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax. The tax has been unchanged since 1993, however, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient.

The gas tax brings in about $34 billion per year, but the federal government currently spends approximately $50 billion annually on road and transit projects.

Transportation advocates have said that the current funding level is the minimum that can be spent to maintain the nation’s infrastructure network, and they have pushed to increase the gas tax for the first time in two decades to help pay for the spending.

The USA Today editorial said that increasing the amount that is paid by drivers who are using the nation's roads was a more logical solution than turning to pensions for infrastructure revenue.

"The obvious near-term solution is to raise the gasoline tax back to where it was in 1993 dollars and index it for inflation," the paper wrote. "States and local officials have done the equivalent without much public complaint. They know that their constituents, while not eager to pay taxes, recognize the need."

The Wall Street Journal offered similarly harsh views of the potential deal to extend highway funding, though its conservative editorial board did not call for a gas tax increase.

"About the best that can be said of this week's bipartisan breakout to pass a new highway bill is that it could have been worse," the newspaper wrote. "The Highway Trust Fund is supposed to be funded by federal gas and diesel taxes, but it has been decades since those dedicated revenue streams have kept pace with Congress's appetite for more road and mass-transit projects."

The Journal noted that President Obama has pushed for multi-year transportation funding bill, even though the White House has endorsed the House's version of the temporary patch.

"The White House endorsement is testament to how desperate Democrats are to claim a 'jobs' victory before Election Day," the editorial said. "The administration until Monday was demanding a four-year, $302-billion bill, which it proposed paying for with President Obama's go-to revenue raiser: New tax increases on corporate overseas earnings.

"The White House's class-warfare theme has been an election-year bust, however, and Republicans feel no pressure to roll over on corporate penalties," the editorial continued. "Mr. Obama decided to cut his losses and claim part-victory for providing more construction jobs this summer."