TEMPORARY HELP FOR THE HIGHWAY TRUST FUND – BUT THE FUTURE IS STILL UNCERTAIN

As nearly every media outlet in America has reported, the Congress last night approved a $10.8 billion transportation bill that will pay for highway and transit projects for the next nine months.  It’s good news, sure.  In practical terms, it means that transportation funding will continue to flow past today’s deadline.  That matters to anyone interested in a project that is funded with Federal monies, and in Massachusetts, there are lots of them.

Of course, as has been the case for several years, this is merely a temporary measure.  And it leads one (many) to ask (several times) why?  Why is it temporary?  Why has it taken so long to put a permanent fix on what has traditionally been a popular, bi-partisan issue that creates jobs and helps drive our economy?  Why does this keep happening?  It’s easy to blame the Congress.  Congressman Capuano, a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and long time transportation champion, spoke directly on the topic in today’s Boston Globe: “This is the world we live in at the moment…We keep kicking the can down the road on everything it’s not good leadership and it’s not good government.”  Well put, Congressman.

There is a lot of information out there about the underlying cause of insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.  What’s less clear is why it’s been so hard to solve.  Recently, several former US transportation secretaries wrote about the issue, but didn’t agree on a solution.  That’s pretty good evidence that there are larger issues at work here.  Sure, we all know that the Congress is balkanized.  But, the truth is that we lack a unified, national transportation vision around which all can rally.  Indeed, with the highway construction era behind us, states, and their representatives in the Congress, have very different views on what needs to prioritize to say nothing of how to fund them.  Highway expansion over highway maintenance over increased transit and bus service?  Put another way, the needs of New York and Massachusetts are very different than those of Kansas, Vermont, or New Mexico.  Not better, just different.  It leads to the logical conclusion that these issues are often best evaluated on a state by state, community by community, basis.

That’s why smart states are taking matters into their own hands.  They recognize that state and local governments are increasingly being asked to take care of their own transportation needs and those that have acted are doing better.  Florida is a good example of that.  There are others, including Massachusetts.  So, you have to ask if we will ever see a true bailout of the fund or if we are witnessing a shift in control over responsibility for a larger share of transportation funding and, with it, transportation decision-making.  After all, a payment, whether it is a tax, toll or fee, is a payment to the consumer regardless of which government is imposing it.  Stay tuned.

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