Highway trust fund bill improves little on status quo

Michael Sargent is a research associate with The Heritage Foundation.

This column was posted on a Heritage Foundation blog on Nov. 5.

Today, the (U.S.) House overwhelmingly passed the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRR) to much fanfare.

The six-year, $325-billion bill reauthorizes highway and transit funding from the federal Highway Trust Fund that was set to expire on November 20. The bill is being heralded as no less than a historic “long-term” measure, emerging after “ten years of short-term band-aids and extensions.”

But make no mistake: Despite the bill’s name and the exhortations of its admirers, STRR is another status quo bailout, plain and simple.

It follows in a long line of short-term bailouts that do nothing to fix the chronic overspending and misallocation of highway trust fund resources. Trust fund spending is still expected to rack up an annual deficit of about $15 billion in the coming years. Instead of reforming the unsustainable system, Congress decided to pad the fund with even more cash from budget gimmicks and unrelated measures.

And the dirty secret about the bill? It’s not a fully funded six-year measure. In just three years, Congress will be required to bail the trust fund out yet again after it chews up the latest general fund infusion, adding further to the $73 billion in bailouts the fund has required since 2008. This is just another patch, albeit on a larger scale.

As to where the bailout cash is coming from, consider some of the ways Congress plans to augment the highway trust fund, which is supposed to be funded by the 18.3-cent gas tax that masquerades as user fee (even though 25 percent of it is diverted to purposes that have nothing to do with highways).

One measure would sell government-owned barrels of oil from the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve and use this to offset new outlays. Not only is the reserve wholly unrelated to highway spending, but the bill assumes that the government can miraculously sell the barrels of oil at nearly twice the market price.

Another measure added at the last minute would raid the Federal Reserve’s $29-billion surplus fund to pay for the new spending. This is budget gimmickry at its worst and makes a mockery of the notion that the Fed is an independent entity isolated from congressional politics.

While there are some parts of the bill that are small steps in the right direction, the bottom line is that this bill does nothing to fix the current problems that plague the trust fund and require perennial congressional attention. Congress will be back in the same spot in a few years, but with an even larger hole in the trust fund’s finances to deal with.

Even more discouraging is that the House will go to conference with the Senate to reconcile the differences between STRR and the Senate’s bigger-spending ($360 billion) bailout, the DRIVE Act. There is little good that can be expected to come out of merging a bad bill with an even worse one.

After mismanaging gas tax dollars for years, it’s clear Congress cannot be relied upon to make responsible decisions regarding the nation’s vital infrastructure.

True federal priorities such as the interstate highway system have taken a back seat to annual pleas for more spending, which now goes to fund local transit projects, bike paths, and museums with motorists’ gas tax dollars.

This irresponsibility was on display yesterday when the House voted down an amendment that would simply limit highway construction dollars from going to landscaping projects. The American people who rely on Congress to be fiscally prudent with their gas tax dollars deserve a better approach.