Heritage Foundation pans highway bill 'gimmicks'

The Heritage Foundation is panning the funding mechanisms that lawmakers are considering for the new multiyear highway bill.

Lawmakers are considering using a variety of funding mechanisms to avoid raising gas taxes on drivers as they negotiate a measure to guarantee at least three years' of federal transportation funding. 

Heritage Foundation research associate Michael Sargent said Friday that most of the payment methods that are being considered for the new round of transportation projects are "gimmicks" that are being used to cover up a $16 billion annual shortfall in U.S. infrastructure funding. 

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"Because the trust fund is projected to run over $80 billion in deficits over the next 6 years, the final bill will require at least that much in offsets," he wrote in a blog post on the group's Daily Signal website.

"And that’s where the gimmicks come in," Sargent continued. "For members of congress, it’s easier to pull together a menu of small, palatable offsets from across the government instead of having to make tough decisions or enact fundamental reform." 

Sargent identified plans to take nearly $60 billion from the Federal Reserve's surplus fund, $9.1 billion from selling portions of the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, $5.7 billion from increasing custom fees, $2.4 billion from contracting tax collections to private companies and $7 billion in transfers from other areas of the federal government as the "worst offenders" that have been discussed by lawmakers as they search for ways to pay for roads. 

Lawmakers are facing a Dec. 4 deadline for the expiration of current infrastructure funding. Congress has been struggling for years to come up with a way to pay for a long-term extension, and they are likely to have to settle now for another temporary patch to prevent a transportation funding shutdown at month's end. 

The traditional source for transportation funding is revenue collected by the federal gas tax, which is currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon. The federal government spends about $50 billion per year on roads, but the gas tax take only brings in $34 billion annually. 

Congress has turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the gap, and lawmakers on the Transportation Committee have said that the Ways and Means Committee will have to identify a set of offsets for the new highway bill before it can move forward. 

Transportation advocates complain that Congress has not passed an infrastructure measure that lasts longer than two years since 2005.

The Heritage Foundation's Sargent said Congress would be better ditching the transportation funding system that has resulted in multiple transfers of revenue from other areas of the federal budget to pay for roads in the last 10 years. 

"Unfortunately, neither the House, nor the Senate plan offer any meaningful reforms that would address the trust fund’s chronic overspending that has already required $73 billion in bailouts since 2008," he wrote.