At the end of next month, the highway account of the federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money. Another fund for mass transit is scheduled to meet the same fate in October. Governor Dannel P. Malloy warned last week that protracted partisan paralysis in Congress could imperil more than 80 state highway, bridge, and rail projects, valued at $650 million, scheduled to start in the next fiscal year. This comes at a time when the federal Department of Transportation rates three-quarters of Connecticut’s roads as being in poor or mediocre condition. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told the governor July 3 that the continuing political stalemate in Washington “is not something you can afford.”
This is particularly bad news, not only for our car suspensions, but for the state’s economy. Aside from the local construction jobs lost when highway projects get cancelled, the state’s economy hits the brakes. Entrepreneurs and CEOs of successful firms realize that a successful business environment is an ecosystem of interdependent factors that help companies thrive. Connecticut’s Transportation Strategy Board has calculated that the state’s congested highways cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in productivity losses, increased operating expenses, and less effective employee recruitment efforts. The transportation component of Connecticut’s business ecosystem is not in great health to begin with, so the approaching insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund presents a discouraging and alarming economic prognosis.
The crux of the problem is that the federal gas tax covers just 72 percent of federal highway spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that raising fuel taxes on gas and diesel by 10 cents per gallon, and indexing those taxes to inflation, would eliminate all current funding shortfalls. (The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents was last raised in 1993 and was not indexed to inflation.) The simple and direct approach of adjusting gas taxes to raise revenues needed to support the national’s vital transportation infrastructure, however, is anathema to a Congress that has a habit of cutting taxes and pushing expensive problems into the future.
In what appears to be a bold step, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, has joined with Tennessee Republican Bob Corker to propose raising the federal gas tax by 6 cents next year and another 6 cents in 2016, indexing those increases to inflation. But by tying their proposed gas tax hike to offsetting corporate tax cuts of an equal amount, the senators’ plan essentially raises revenue once and spends it twice: once on infrastructure and once again on corporate tax relief. Is this bold or balderdash?
We expect Congress, at the 11th hour, will opt for what amounts to pothole repair — a temporary patch that moves the country’s emerging infrastructure crisis down an increasingly rocky road. Prepare for a long and bumpy ride. It is the best we can expect from our politically polarized representatives in Washington. We know better than to ask for a real solution to this problem — or to ask anytime soon, “Are we there yet?”