Recently, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, released a report titled, “The Road to Sustainable Highway Funding.” The committee, which includes Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, builds on many of the transportation recommendations included in the Bowles-Simpson report. It recommends passage of comprehensive tax reform while ensuring the Highway Trust Fund remains adequately funded. It includes three steps:
- Getting the Trust Fund Up to Speed ($25 billion) by paying the “legacy costs” of pre-2015 obligations with savings elsewhere in the budget;
- Bridging the Funding Gap ($150 billion) with a policy of raising the gas tax by 9 cents and limiting annual spending to income; and
- Creating a Fast Lane to Tax Reform to help Congress identify alternative funding and financing.
The report is a great attempt at creating a sensible national transportation policy which is something that seems to elude Congress. Many of its suggestions are excellent. These include reducing funds for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program (CMAQ), eliminating Davis-Bacon requirements and killing the transportation alternatives program. Keeping federal transportation funding constant is an excellent goal. Limiting future spending to income is a great idea that seems obvious everywhere but Washington, D.C. Encouraging future highway bills to make tax and spending decisions together would be great policy, although I am not sure how this occurs without the Ways and Means Committee losing power, which would never happen politically.
However, some of the bill components are troubling. First, to get the Highway Trust Fund up to speed, the plan spends $15 billion reducing and reforming agricultural subsidies and $10 billion extending the mandatory sequester. While reforming farm policy is a great idea, since paying farmers not to plant certain crops has always been one of our most curious policies, such funding should not be directed to the highway trust fund. Rather, it should pay down general fund debt. There is no real link between farming and transportation.
Second, a two-year highway bill is better than a series of extensions but does not provide the needed long-term certainty. It takes 10 years or longer to complete many highway projects. Securing sufficient funding requires a mix of public and private funding that requires complex deals. DOTs need long-term certainty, and two years is not long-term enough. The traditional six-year bills are also a little short. Ten years would be ideal.
Third, the group proposes to schedule a 9-cent increase after one year. Such an increase is reasonable but only with significant program reforms. Policy makers should also eliminate Buy America. Federal caps on financing tools including Private Activity Bonds need to be increased. And while a 9-cent increase would be a short-medium term solution, increasing fuel efficiency and the presence of electric and hybrid cars, makes the gas tax a poor long-term solution.
Finally, the report’s acceptance of the blanket spending cuts in the sequester (as a baseline) is poor policy. The sequester cut discretionary programs such as Next-Gen which is a core national priority for aviation while not touching formula programs such as streetcars which are neither a national nor a core transportation program. The sequester cuts should be examined to ensure that areas cut do not serve a vital national function.