MAP-21, the new surface-transportation authorization, has been in effect only for about three weeks, but the American Road & Transportation Builders Association already is looking ahead, launching an effort to find a way to fill what many see as the statute’s biggest gap—not enough funding for the long term.
To be sure, after 33 months of funding via short-term extensions, transportation and construction lobbyists were happy to see the bill—the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act—become law. And they were pleasantly surprised to see that it carried through fiscal 2014, and not just through 2013.
Nevertheless, all observers, and the bill's congressional architects, know that the bill only props up the faltering Highway Trust Fund through fiscal 2014. The trust fund’s nagging, underlying problem is still there—its currently projected fuel-tax revenue will be unable to prevent the fund from falling into the red in fiscal 2015.
On July 6, the day MAP-21 was signed into law, ARTBA announced it was forming a task force to seek additional funding.
Bill Toohey, ARTBA executive vice president and chief operating officer, says, “We view MAP-21 as the first step of several steps that need to be taken here. And the most critical is getting more funding for the program.” He adds, “And we’re not going to let any opportunity go by without trying to increase the funding for the program.”
Such opportunities could include any broad-based spending or tax measures Congress may take up after the November elections clarify the political landscape.
Some heavy hitters will lead ARTBA’s task force. The co-chairs, announced July 24, are Scott L. Cassels, Kiewit Infrastructure Group president; Lane Construction CEO Robert E. Alger; and consultant Bud Wright, a former Federal Highway Administration executive director.
The new group also will work on implementing MAP-21, which mandates some important policy changes, particularly through provisions aimed at speeding up federal environmental and other reviews. But its prime focus clearly will be finances.
Toohey adds, “There’s a variety of mechanisms out there to raise money. Congress has not come up with the political will to rally around any one of them or several of them yet. The path of least resistance has been to go to the general fund.” MAP-21 is the latest example: it includes an $18.8-billion transfer to the trust fund from the general fund.
But Toohey says, “We don’t think that’s the correct way to do it and transportation leaders in Congress also don’t think that it’s the right way to do it.” What are some alternative revenue-raisers? “As far as we’re concerned, everything is on the table,” he says.
One obvious, but politically tough, option is raising the 18.4¢-per-gallon federal gasoline tax. That levy has been the main federal highway-funding source since it was established in 1956. Despite the urgings of ARTBA and other construction industry groups over the years, the gas tax hasn’t been hiked since 1993.
President Obama and many in Congress from both ends of the political spectrum still oppose an increase in that levy.
Congress needs to act on income taxes and overall discretionary spending by the end of the year. Tax cuts dating to 2001 and 2003 are set to expire Dec. 31 and the political parties are haggling over whether to extend all or part of them.
Moreover, the 2011 Budget Control Act’s mandatory cuts in discretionary federal spending will begin to take hold in January, unless Congress comes up with more than $1 trillion in 10-year deficit reduction.
It’s possible that the White House and congressional Democrats and Republicans will come up with a “grand bargain” to resolve the tax and spending problems. Given congressional appetite for stopgap solutions, they might go for a short-term fix to delay or pare back the budget act’s required “sequestration” cuts.
Little is expected to happen before the Nov. 6 elections, which will determine who the President will be next year and which parties will control the House and Senate, and by what margins.
Whatever happens on Capitol Hill, ARTBA and others in the transportation industry want to be ready to push for more funds for highways and transit.
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, says NAPA will rally behind ARTBA’s new task force “and do whatever we can to support it.”
Hansen adds, “I think you’ve got to keep leaning forward and be in a position to strike....”
NAPA's legislative committee also has set up its own task force to prepare for reauthorizing MAP-21. It plans to produce recommendations for that envisioned follow-on bill in the fall of 2013.