24 Jun

American gridlock is literal

There are so many things to look forward to in summer: Going off on family vacations, lazy drives in the country, rolling over cooling rivers on structurally sound bridges.

And this summer, we can look forward to the National Highway Trust Fund running out, which could do more to keep Americans motionless than the mosquito.

For years, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio has been working to devise a new federal transportation bill, legislation that Congress used to pass regularly every six years, with roads and bridges for all. As a very senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, DeFazio could have a significant voice in shaping the bill; last time, he was able to adjust the funding formula to Oregon’s benefit.

But what’s the point in being a transportation honcho in a Congress that’s going nowhere?

“America’s falling apart,” DeFazio said in a recent interview. “There’s not even enough money to maintain what we built in the last century, let alone any new major projects. At all levels, it’s pathetic.”

The National Highway Trust Fund, which covers most federal transportation efforts, is funded by the federal gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993. What has increased sharply is average gas mileage, not to mention hybrid and electric cars, meaning that the feds are collecting steadily less per mile travelled, although it certainly doesn’t cost less to maintain a mile of road.

And this summer, we’re heading down a particularly steep off-ramp. The multiyear transportation act runs out Sept. 30, but before we even get to that point, the highway trust fund runs out of money sometime in August. We’re approaching the toll booth, and grubbing under our seats for coins.

Without some kind of deal — and Congress goes on its July 4 recess on Friday, to be followed shortly by its August recess, and the House has just 30 workdays left before the Sept. 30 deadline — projects dry up swiftly. In Oregon, Oregon Department of Transportation director Matthew Garrett warned DeFazio, federal transportation funding would drop by 40 percent, and “If Congress has not resolved funding for all of 2015 by early this fall, we will have to delay sending some projects to bid and contract.”

If we’re depending on Congress to act effectively, of course, we might as well immediately adjust our shock absorbers to Pothole – and be careful about crossing any bridges.

House Republicans devised a plan to temporarily cover the shortfall by ending Saturday mail delivery, which DeFazio noted would “maintain our very anemic and inadequate funding for six months by sacrificing the Postal Service.”

Although as he noted Thursday, referring to the House majority leader recently decapitated in a Virginia primary, “Eric Cantor was the one who was pushing the idea of taking money from the Postal Service. We haven’t heard much about that lately.”

And as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx pointed out, “I would point out that on its best day, the proposal that’s being offered on this postal service is a one-year proposal, and so it doesn’t meet the demands of a long-term investment.”

Of course, the administration’s own proposal calls for funding by corporate tax reform, which would be passed by this Congress just about the time personal flying devices make a transportation package unnecessary.

Last week, DeFazio introduced a bill for a barrel tax on oil destined for transportation. Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., proposed a gradual 12-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase. Neither plan has yet attracted a crowd.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said last week that he wanted his committee to devise a short-term six-month fix followed by a long-term solution, although he didn’t know what it might look like. Wyden spokesman Kevin Chu said Thursday that Wyden would look at all possibilities, and wanted to get a short-term fix through the Finance Committee before Congress left this Friday.

That’s as encouraging as things get for 50 state transportation directors, including Oregon’s Matthew Garrett. A federal role in transportation that goes back to the interstate highway system set up in the 1950s – not to say the intercontinental railroad system of the 1860s – seems on the edge of rolling into a roadside ditch.

For seven years, we thought the motionless traffic of the Interstate Bridge at rush hour was on its way into the past. Now it seems likely to spread through then future.

It’s not enough that Congress has paralyzed itself in gridlock.

It’s now extending that benefit to the rest of us.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, June 22, 2014.

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