Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission chairman Stephen Miller has been going from office to office in Washington trying to persuade Congress to do something it hasn’t done in years: pass a long-term fix for the nation’s highway system.
So far, not so good.
“Right now,” he said, “we’re in complete gridlock.”
That legislative clog loosened slightly over the weekend as senators stumbled toward a vote on a $317 billion bill designed to funnel money to states for future transportation projects such as bridges and highways. The current highway bill expires after Friday.
But a widespread aversion to higher taxes and deep disagreements over how to meet modern transportation needs are likely to stall significant progress. The potential result? Another temporary extension of the existing program, the 34th time Congress has kicked this particular can down a rapidly deteriorating road.
“Why can’t Congress do a better job on things like this?” a weary Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, asked Thursday. “We need to break that cycle if we can.”
Failure to pass a new transportation bill won’t affect current highway construction in Missouri or Kansas, at least in the short term. Orange cones and yellow warning signs will remain intact.
If Congress does nothing, though — if it fails, at minimum, to pass an extension of the current highway law — thousands of Federal Highway Administration workers could face furloughs at the end of the summer. That, in turn, could mean fewer permits, less project assistance and a rapid downturn in road-building work.
More broadly, officials in Missouri and Kansas say congressional failure to pass a long-term federal highway bill cripples planning for future projects, such as rebuilding interchanges or expanding highways. Some mass transit projects are also on hold.
“We want to know, with some degree of certainty, that the projects we’re starting to design now will have the money in five years,” said Mike King, the Kansas secretary of transportation.
Last year, Kansas got about $354 million in federal funds for highway projects.
Kansas is less reliant on Washington than some states because it has raised state taxes for highway projects. Yet some of the money was diverted to cover general budget shortfalls caused by Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts, so federal money remains an important factor in the state’s transportation planning.
The congressional stalemate is more problematic in Missouri. Legislators and voters have repeatedly rejected state-based increases in taxes for highway construction, increasing the potential impact of any shortfall in federal transportation spending.
Washington gave Missouri $929 million for transportation programs last year. That’s roughly the amount spent on current construction projects, about $1 billion.
If the federal pump is turned off, though, Missouri’s low 17-cents-a-gallon gas tax can’t make up the difference. The state spends $485 million a year on snow removal, signs, traffic management, even litter control, and Missouri’s fuel tax provides almost exactly that amount.
That puts Missouri in a maintenance-only mode, officials say. The ongoing federal stalemate has prompted officials to end consideration of any new highway projects over the next five years.
“We are simply unable to rely on federal funding,” Miller said. “We can’t even begin to touch those new projects.”
That means the Kansas City to St. Louis route on Interstate 70 probably will remain crowded and potentially dangerous. Neither voters nor lawmakers have been able to settle on a plan to raise taxes in the state to shore up the highway.
Stories like Missouri’s have prompted interest groups across the political spectrum to urge Congress to finally pass a long-term highway bill. Business and labor groups, state budget officials, Democrats and Republicans have called on Congress to lock in a fully funded multi-year fix.
“Nobody’s been happy about it,” said Jim Burnley, who served as transportation secretary in the Reagan administration. “Nobody thinks it’s a good way to govern.”
As is almost always the case in today’s Washington, though, the highway measure is caught in a partisan crossfire of competing interests, approaches and unavoidable realities.
The federal government’s share of highway project costs is paid for through a gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon. The tax brings in about $34 billion a year, an amount that’s slipping because drivers are using more fuel-efficient cars.
At the same time, the states get about $50 billion for their projects. For years, Congress has covered that gap with budget transfers, delays and other maneuvers. Those options have strained the federal budget and frustrated transportation planners in the states.
So some Democrats and Republicans want to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been bumped up since 1993. With gas prices at historic lows, they say, consumers would barely notice a small increase — 10 cents a gallon, for example, which would provide about $18 billion more each year for road projects.
House Democrats have proposed raising the tax by 15 cents a gallon over three years.
Anti-tax Republicans have firmly rejected that approach.
“Lower gas prices mean a de facto increase in discretionary income for all Americans,” said an email from U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican. “I do not believe it should mean an increase in income for the government.”
Senators, reacting to that sentiment, have fashioned a bill called the DRIVE Act that would increase highway funding without a gas tax hike. Instead, it proposes a series of decade-long revenue raisers — selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a crackdown on some unpaid taxes, even using some leftover funds from the bank bailout. The money raised, about $47 billion, would cover the funding gap for three years.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, voted to debate the plan.
“We’ve got a real crisis on our hands,” she said. “I’m hopeful we’re in striking distance of solving it.”
Some conservative groups see the measure as more of the same inaction.
“The federal highway program is fundamentally broken,” Heritage Action for America wrote, “and the Senate’s approach would lock in the status quo for another six years.”
Some groups want to dismantle much of the federal role in highway construction, turning it over to states. Others believe the highway fund should go only for highway construction and not for urban mass transit projects designed to limit the wear and tear on busy highways.
That idea is unpopular with urban lawmakers, whose constituents prefer buses and rail transit to building more roadways.
There are also alternative funding mechanisms on the table. Some federal lawmakers want to offer incentives to corporations that bring their foreign earnings back to the U.S., a process called repatriation. Taxes on those profits might provide a fund for highway repairs.
New roadblocks were tossed onto this still bumpy pavement last week. Some senators wanted to attach language to the highway bill dealing with the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran or renewing funding for the Export-Import Bank, a federally backed financing vehicle used by some corporations for overseas sales.
Federal funding for Planned Parenthood was also an issue in the debate. Funding for rail passenger safety was on the table. Republican senators wanted to try, again, to repeal Obamacare.
The tangled legislation, coupled with a looming August recess, has left most congressional observers convinced another short-term extension is likely, at least through the end of the year.
Almost no one seems happy with that outcome.
“Short-term extensions don’t work,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said on the Senate floor.
Yet others seemed resigned to another can-kicker.
“When you’ve got a divided Congress,” Blunt said, “sometimes a short extension is the best you can do.”
Curtis Tate of McClatchy’s Washington bureau contributed to this report.