GOP budgets quiet on highway funding fix

Mario Ortiz

Budgets that were released this week by Republicans leaders in the House and Senate offer little relief for a transportation funding shortfall that is threatening to stall construction projects this summer. 

Lawmakers are scrambling to come up with a way to pay for an extension of a transportation funding measure that is currently scheduled to expire in May. 

Few answers about how the transportation funding gridlock will be broken are offered in the budget that was released by Republican leaders in the upper chamber on Wednesday, which cuts $5.1 billion in federal spending and balances over 10 years. 

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The House plan that was unveiled on Tuesday, which cuts $5.5 billion in federal spending over the next decade, is also mum on the subject of infrastructure funding beyond the creation of a “deficit-neutral reserve fund for transportation.” 

The amount that will be placed in the infrastructure fund, which is the crux of the transportation funding issue, is left blank. 

“In the House, the chair of the Committee on the budget may revise the allocations, aggregates, and other budgetary levels in this concurrent resolution for any bill or joint resolution, or amendment thereto or conference report thereon, if such measure maintains the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, but only if such measure would not increase the deficit over the period of fiscal years 2016 through 2025,” the House GOP budget plan says. 

The Senate’s budget is even less prescriptive, offering only to create a “deficit-neutral reserve fund for air transportation.” 

The silence of the budgets on transportation funding comes as lawmakers are struggling to identify a funding source for infrastructure projects beyond revenue that is collected by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. 

The gas tax has been the traditional source of transportation funding since the 1930s, but improvements in the fuel efficiency of cars have sapped its buying power. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings $34 billion annually.  

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the $16 billion annual gap in recent years, but House budget writers said it is time to stop the transfers. 

“The financial well-being of the Highway Trust Fund is eroding year after year,” the House budget plan says. “Over the past decade, gas-tax receipts plateaued while spending continued to grow. Despite $63.1 billion in taxpayer bailouts, CBO projects the Highway Trust Fund still faces insolvency by the end of fiscal 2015. 

“Without reform, the Highway Trust Fund faces two outcomes,” the House budget document continues. “Under current law, the Highway Trust Fund cannot incur negative balances, so spending will automatically decrease and the Department of Transportation (DOT) will have to ration the amounts it reimburses to states to maintain a ‘prudent balance’ in the fund. Alternately, Congress will need to continue to provide additional bailouts, in the form of transfers from the general fund, paid for with borrowed money.

GOP leaders in the House said their budget “advocates sensible reforms to ensure the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund while at the same time providing flexibility for a surface-transportation reauthorization that does not increase the deficit,” although the document does not specify where the road money will come from. 

“The budget includes a reserve fund to provide for innovative thinking to bring a new surface-transportation bill to passage, as long as that legislation is deficit neutral,” the budget document says. 

The Department of Transportation has warned that it will have to reduce reimbursements for infrastructure projects to states if the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money this summer. 

Transportation advocates have said that a shutdown in May would cost thousands of jobs because summer is typically the beginning of the busiest construction in the U.S.