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Caution: Road Work Ahead Through July 31st!

When I think of the federal highway bill languishing again in Congress, I can’t help but get the Schoolhouse Rock song from my childhood playing in my head…”I’m just a bill. I am only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.” The ever-present debate on how to continue funding the nation’s highway, transit and road safety programs is hurtling toward yet another deadline on July 31.

Why the gridlock? Money. There’s not enough of it. Without Congressional action, the highway trust fund balance will reach zero in early September. Since the fund can’t legally show a negative balance, the Congress has three choices:

  • Pass a multi-year bill (the option everyone prefers), or
  • Pass a short-term extension and find the revenue to fund that extension (roughly $10 billion to fund projects through the end of 2015), or
  • Allow the disruption of state transportation projects to keep the balance at zero.

There is no easy choice for Members of Congress. They have been wrestling with it since 2008 and there have been roughly two dozen short-term extensions of the highway bill over the last 12 years. The highway fund revenue source is fuel taxes that haven’t been raised since 1993 and were not indexed for inflation. Since then, the combination of less driving among Americans and improved fuel efficiency have led to a shortfall for seven years. Congress has transferred money from the general fund of the Treasury but that is not a long term solution. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the highway trust fund now faces a $169 billion shortfall over 10 years.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee got the ball rolling on July 2 by unanimously passing Senate Bill 1647, also known as the DRIVE Act, out of committee. Multiple committees in the House and Senate have jurisdiction over parts of the highway bill, so like the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, this legislation has a long way to go before it becomes law.

The biggest responsibility falls on the members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. These Members of Congress are charged with finding additional revenue sources for the highway trust fund. Several ideas have been floated, but, to date, there is no agreement on a long-term funding source.

From a safety perspective, this presents serious problems. Short-term extensions keep funding levels flat and force the states to work with language passed in 2012. This stifles innovation and progress. Additionally our infrastructure is literally crumbling. We have seen bridges closed for repair, subway systems in need of updates, railroad crashes and increased traffic congestion.

Ray LaHood, former United States Secretary of Transportation and a former Member of Congress, summed the challenge up eloquently in his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, “These challenges are immense but not impossible. Building America’s Future is calling on Congress to pass a long term and sustainable bill that does much more than provide small inflationary increases in funding. To do that it’s going to take all of us working together – Republicans with Democrats; the House and the Senate; and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Hopefully the United States Congress will be able to make the necessary tough choices regarding the highway trust fund this year. A multi-year bill is sorely needed. As a nation we have made tremendous progress in preventing traffic safety deaths and injuries. A long-term bill requires economic sacrifices in the form of reduced spending or new revenue sources or both. The funding solution could ultimately be unpopular. However, the alternative is worse. Our aging infrastructure makes us vulnerable to increased deaths and injuries on our roads and rails. That’s something our nation absolutely cannot afford.

Responsibility.org is a leader in the fight to stop impaired driving and has offered proven solutions to further reduce death and injury due to impaired driving. To learn more about the policies we support, visit Responsibility.org’s policy page.

Brandy Anderson Nannini is the Vice President of Government Relations and Traffic Safety.

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