Predicting highway funding with a cloudy crystal ball

 

The Republicans all promised they would change things if elected in November. But even with control of the House, don’t expect a hefty highway bill to land on your doorstep anytime soon.

Approximately half of the Democrats, including Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-MN, serving on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, lost in their bid for reelection. The new chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-FL, has said long-term reauthorization of a new federal highway bill is a one of his top priorities, and it needs to be with the current extension set to expire Dec. 31.

Since Republicans are currently focused on extending the Bush tax cuts, and then repealing the health care reform the Obama administration spent nearly 18 months to pass, a new federal highway bill will more than likely be pushed to the back of the room. But then again the Republicans did say they would focus on the economy and creating jobs.

Funding has always been the obstacle Oberstar and others have faced in trying to pass a multi-year $450 billion reauthorization program. The thought of raising the federal gas tax during the current economic stress this country has endured, and especially during an election year, received absolutely no support from politicians who wanted to win in November.

A week after the elections, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility & Reform released a proposal that recommended a 15-cent federal gas tax increase. The Commission’s bipartisan Co-chairs Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles unveiled a proposal that called for cuts in Social Security benefits, along with deep reductions in federal spending and higher taxes for many Americans.

It looks like increasing the federal gas tax could be a viable funding mechanism that our elected officials are now willing to entertain. It will certainly be needed to move forward with a six-year highway bill.

Republicans claimed the stimulus funding did nothing to create jobs. They’re wrong! It provided jobs for an industry that has suffered a higher than average national unemployment rate. Prior to the stimulus package, the construction unemployment rate was close to 28%, and now it’s approximately 20%.  In September, President Obama proposed another $50 billion for transportation infrastructure projects, which will create jobs, and that’s what Republicans say they will focus as they take control of the House.

While the future of highway funding is clearly uncertain, Republicans say they will focus on creating jobs and talks about increasing a key funding mechanism – the federal gas tax – are encouraging. Stimulus funding has run its course for the most part, so a new highway bill is a must.

Greg Udelhofen, Editor

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