Saving the federal Highway Trust Fund from going bankrupt — freezing thousands of roadway projects and leaving an estimated 800,000 workers out of a job — is the least that Congress can do.
And the House of Representatives did exactly that last week — the least it could do.
It’s what the nation has come to expect from a Congress that is on course to being one of the least productive and responsive in memory.
The House on Tuesday voted 367-55 to approve an $11.8 billion stop-gap measure that addresses near-term needs but simply ensures the highway trust fund will be back on the verge of insolvency next May, just in time for summer travel.
What the nation really needed was for Congress to pass a long-term transportation bill that includes a long-needed boost in the federal gas tax to adequately meet the nation’s infrastructure needs.
Instead, the Republican-controlled House approved a short-term measure full of gimmicks like tapping into tax receipts from corporate pension plans and using money intended for such things as fixing underground tanks at old gas stations.
The Senate has yet to vote on a similar bill, but it no doubt will.
If not, faced with depleted coffers, the Transportation Department has said that starting on Aug. 1 it would cut construction spending by 28 percent, a move that would force states that are dependent on federal funding for road work to put on hold more than 100,000 roadway projects across the nation.
The situation is dire enough that even President Barack Obama has supported the stop-gap measure. But nobody should confuse this with good government.
The main problem is that the nation has changed significantly since the highway trust fund was established in 1953 as part of the interstate highway system — and so have our driving habits.
Revenue for the trust fund comes from a federal gasoline tax — which has remained at 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel and 18.4 cents a gallon for all other grades for more than 20 years.
The money goes toward building and repairing bridges and other ailing roadway infrastructure. It is also is used to fund rail projects and bike and pedestrian-friendly boulevards. But while costs for highway improvements have increased, revenues have remained flat due primarily to fewer people being out on the roads and more people driving fuel-efficient vehicles.
But our nation’s improvements in fuel-efficiency have not lessened our need to maintain a sound network of roads — or our obligation to find a sound, long-term funding source. Over the past 15 years, federal highway spending has increased from $33 billion a year to $53 billion, due to the rapid deterioration of the nation’s highways.
But instead of addressing that need in an honest fashion, Congress has chosen once again to confront a major long-term problem with a short-term patch.
Given that this is an election year and Republicans are staunchly opposed to any tax increase — even those that would spruce up the nation’s roadways — we don’t see this situation improving soon. What the nation needs is a sound road system and reliable funding source to maintain it. What it gets is a Congress that veers toward doing the bare minimum.