EDITORIALS

Abraham Lincoln predicted today’s highway funding mess that’s holding us back

Posted May 18, 2015, at 12:34 p.m.

How pathetic are congressional efforts to fund needed highway and infrastructure work?

Authorization of the current highway fund expires in two weeks, and Congress is far from agreement on how to raise money to pay for road, bridge and mass transit projects, not only for the long term but even through the end of this year.

Not only is the federal highway fund set to go bankrupt this summer, it is woefully underfunded even when it isn’t surviving deadline to deadline. The fund, which reimburses states for highway and mass transit projects, faces a shortfall of nearly $170 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In testimony before Congress in 2014, Joseph Kile, the CBO’s assistant director for microeconomic studies, laid out three options: decrease funding for projects, which means fewer projects get funded; raise revenue, primarily through an increase in the federal gas tax; or keep taking money from the Treasury’s general fund. While most experts agree that raising the fuel tax is the best option, raising taxes has long been a non-starter in Congress, where lawmakers fear being branded a “tax and spender” during their next campaign.

Raising the motor fuel tax, which hasn’t been done since 1993, has to be part of the discussion. The current federal tax is 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel. Money raised through fuel taxes, mostly gasoline, has long been the majority source of highway fund revenue. Some money also comes from taxes on commercial truck tires and truck sales.

In addition to the fuel tax being flat for more than two decades, improved fuel economy has also dampened funding for the highway fund.

Maine receives $170 million a year in federal highway funds. Because Congress ultimately finds money for the highway fund, albeit at the last minute and for the short term, the Maine Department of Transportation is not adjusting its work plan.

The current three-year work plan includes nearly 900 projects, including replacement or rehabilitation of 47 bridges, paving of 252 miles of “high priority” roads and dredging of the Port of Searsport.

The work plan, however, does not reflect all of the work DOT believes needs to be done. A recent report identified a $100 million shortfall between Maine’s transportation infrastructure needs and available funding.

A significant portion of transportation funding comes from the state highway fund and state bonds. Like the federal fund, the state highway fund gets much of its money from fuel taxes. The state’s tax on gasoline is 30 cents a gallon. Until 2011, when it was repealed, the tax rate was adjusted yearly for inflation. Now, like the federal tax, it is not keeping pace with transportation needs.

The need for improved infrastructure — and the difficulty of paying for it — is not new. As a 23-year-old running for the Illinois Legislature, Abraham Lincoln introduced his campaign with a call for better roads and river systems for transporting goods.

“Time and experience have verified to a demonstration, the public utility of internal improvements. That the poorest and most thinly populated countries would be greatly benefited by the opening of good roads, and in the clearing of navigable streams within their limits, is what no person will deny,” Lincoln wrote in a March 9, 1832, statement published in the Sangamo Journal. “But yet it is folly to undertake works of this or any other kind, without first knowing that we are able to finish them — as half finished work generally proves to be labor lost. There cannot justly be any objection to having rail roads and canals, any more than to other good things, provided they cost nothing. The only objection is to paying for them; and the objection to paying arises from the want of ability to pay.”

Lincoln lost that election but never lost his faith in the benefits of investing in infrastructure. He was a major champion of the transcontinental railroad, which was completed four years after his assassination.

Expect Maine and the nation to bumble along, funding far fewer projects than necessary to truly improve the country’s transportation systems, rather than take on the challenge Lincoln identified more than 180 years ago in a meaningful way.

 

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