A vote by House Republicans yesterday has the potential to significantly change how funding for federal highway and transit programs is distributed and allocated.
This vote dictates that the minimum guaranteed annual spending level for federal transportation will no longer apply. What’s more, the current allocated spending levels allocated for federal highway and transit programs are more than its main funding source, the Highway Trust Fund, can actually pay out.
Under the current House rule Highway Trust Fund revenues, which are derived from the federal gasoline tax, are used for annual highway and transit programs. And a December 28 letter from more than 20 transportation concerns to members of House leadership points out that prior to the adoption of this rule in 1988, it was common for Congress “to engage in a shell game by reducing Highway Trust Fund spending so that spending elsewhere could be increased. The letter added that as a result of these abuses, the balances in the trust fund soared, while much-needed infrastructure investment was deferred.
Other ramifications of this vote, according to the letter, cite the need for federal highway and transit programs to be stable and predictable and to allow states to maximize efficiency and public benefit in delivering transportation improvements.
And it added that it would sever the user-financed basis of the Highway Trust Fund, and make annual federal highway and transit investments subject to the whims of the appropriations process.
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Executive Director John Horsley said in a statement that this vote is likely to have a negative impact on transportation funding.
“We are disappointed that House Republicans voted to rescind a guarantee that Highway Trust Fund revenues would be spent to fund the critical highway and transit programs that millions of Americans rely on everyday,” said Horsley. “There are two deficits facing the country today – the federal debt and the deficit in maintaining the infrastructure on which economic recovery depends. In their zeal to address the first issue, the new House leadership has taken action that deepens the second.”
In a recent interview with LM, Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, said that if this vote becomes official it could fundamentally dismantle a process that has been in been place for roughly 20 years.
This comes on top of a recently-enacted continuing resolution for federal highway and transit funding, which was voted on by Congress during the final days of the 111th Congress. This continuing resolution is the latest in a series and have kept transportation spending afloat since SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users) expired on September 30, 2009.
While continuing resolutions have served as a stop gap to sustain funding at current levels, there is no clear indication a new bill will come to fruition in the future.
“It is an important philosophical change if they vote to strike this rule,” said Blakey. “Another extension of spending [highlights] that we don’t have a direction for transportation programs right now. Taking this rule out of the program is potentially the dismantling of what we have had in existence right now for nearly 20 years in the way in which we address and fund our transportation programs. If a new highway bill is not on track by May or June, then it may not happen until after the 2012 Presidential election.”