The arguments that in decades past helped produce record-breaking surface transportation authorizations don’t work any more. Not even the gas tax and the Highway Trust Fund, which make drivers pay and keep the money separate from other taxes, are sacrosanct. Transportation now needs a plan just to get by. After that, we should invigorate the user-fee concept with an eye toward replacing it with a vehicle-miles-traveled tax plan.

Transportation’s Political Crisis: Shift the Strategy

If we require another sign of the need for change, we received it on the first day of the new Congress. The GOP-dominated House of Representatives adopted new rules that will allow House members to allocate funds below the levels states that are authorized to spend by long-term transportation legislation that has been adopted by Congress.

For now, the matter has little practical impact because the Senate can choose to continue to allocate funds at the levels authorized to the states. But it shows the mindset of the lawmakers and sends out another ominous signal for federal transportation financing. K Street lobbyists for labor and industry now find themselves on the opposite side of the issue from the Republican budget-cutters. War, terrorism, skepticism about public works and anti-vehicle environmentalism also are now lined up against transportation funding.

A new transportation funding authorization has been stalled in Congress for 15 months now. The main reason is opposition to raising the gas tax. As high fuel prices and declines in driving during the recession have sharply limited revenue from the 18.4¢-per-gallon tax, Congress has been forced to bail out the Highway Trust Fund with $34.5 billion from the general fund.

The best plan would be to shoot for a steady-state authorization, perhaps two years long, to fund highways and transit at the amounts now estimated for trust-fund revenue in fiscal years 2012 and 2013. This is about $40 billion each year—enough to give states a chance to plan and maintain the transportation system. The full build-out of high-speed rail must wait.

By the end of that period, we all hope, the economy will be more fully recovered, tax revenue will be up and the federal deficit will be narrower. States—which provide important matching funds—should be fiscally healthier.

That interim bill also should allow more tolling on new and existing highways and enable the private sector to help with project financing. Streamlining regulatory approval, with Minnesota’s I-35W bridge replacement as the model, also is a good idea.

The U.S. can’t keep cutting transportation funds forever. After the two-year interim period, it will be time for Congress and the White House to step up with a gas-tax boost and incentives to states to do the same. The additional money and maybe a vehicle-miles fee would allow funding for the broader transportation vision our country needs.