For optimistic folks still holding on to the hope of a long-term federal transportation authorization coming to fruition before the next Presidential election, it is likely time to label those hopes as wishful thinking.
That’s the word from James H. Burnley, a partner at Washington D.C.-based law firm Vebnable LLP and former Secretary of Transportation under the late President Ronald Reagan.
Speaking at this week’s Connections 2019 event in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Burnley attributed the primary reason for lack of movement on a new bill to replace the current FAST (Fixing America's Surface Transportation) Act, which expires on September 30, 2020, to a high level of political dysfunction.
“Things in Washington are as dysfunctional as they have ever been on a sustained basis,” Burnley told the audience. “We are not getting much done on the legislative side. One area where a lot is happening is in deregulation…with the Trump administration being focused at all levels of looking at regulatory schemes it inherited that were put out by the Obama administration and rolled back a number of those.”
Looking at the current legislative state of surface transportation infrastructure, Burnley said the answer sadly is little or nothing good is coming for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t see any scenario in which a surface transportation or broader infrastructure bill passes before the election next year,” he said. “What will happen [when the current bill expires] is what has happened in the past over and over again with short-term extensions that Congress can do for a day, week, or month, or year, whatever they choose.”
What’s more, Burnley lamented the lack of any serious discussion inside the Beltway regarding how to pay for the next surface transportation infrastructure bill.
“When you keep increasing expenditures out of the Highway Trust Fund and don’t increase the revenue stream [the HTF is the primary source of infrastructure funding and has not been increased since 1993], it cannot end well,” he said. We can no longer make up the shortfall by moving money out of the U.S. general fund. We are going to have a $1 trillion deficit and are looking at a four- or five-year reauthorization bill with a HTF shortfall of anywhere from $78 billion to $125 billion. I don’t see a political scenario right now where we close that gap up.”
Looking a political leadership stances, Burnley said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is opposed to raising fuel taxes, adding that President Obama was also reluctant to do so, calling it a regressive tax.
And while President Trump, at times, has publicly considered raising the federal fuel tax, Burnley said it is unlikely he would do it alone, coupled with many Republican members of Congress likely to go in that direction.
“I think a very difficult scenario is shaping up for the next two or three years,” said Burnley.