Just Because It’s Over Doesn’t Mean It’s Over - Washington Insider
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Just Because It’s Over Doesn’t Mean It’s Over


Article Date: 11-01-2005
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

The highway debate goes on.

With a new six-year surface transportation law in place, you might think we can put highway issues on the back burner for a while. Think again. Events of the past few months have shown that's not an option for AED or any other association that cares about strong federal infrastructure programs. In the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, highway construction has been under attack from two directions. The first assault was against the gas tax, the sole source of funding for the federal program. The hurricanes damaged Gulf coast refineries and drilling platforms, driving up gas prices sharply.

A few lawmakers signed onto a bill introduced by Rep. Phil English (R-PA) to suspend the 18.4-cents-per-gallon highway user fee as a way to temporarily bring down prices. Many who didn't formally sign on to the bill voiced support for the idea, justifying their positions by saying that lost Highway Trust Fund revenues would be made up with transfers from the federal government's General Fund.

At first blush, the English proposal may seem like a great way to deal with a short-term political problem, but dig a little deeper and the flaws become apparent. What happens when the suspension expires in a few months and gas prices go up more than 18 cents overnight? Our guess is that public support for the user fee and highway program will be significantly undermined.

Then there's the question of whether consumers would ever see the price savings from the gas tax suspension or whether oil companies and gas stations would reap most of the benefits.

Finally, given current federal budget pressures, how likely is it that Congress will ever come up with the billions of dollars it will take to make up losses to the Highway Trust Fund?

Which brings us to the second attack on the road program. The cost of Katrina recovery has been conservatively estimated at around $100 billion. Even in Washington, that's a lot of money.

Lawmakers are digging in the couch cushions to find spare change to pay the bill. One group of conservative lawmakers led by Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) has proposed reopening the recently enacted six-year highway law (called SAFETEA-LU), repealing the bill's project earmarks, and using the money for Katrina relief.

Although SAFTEA-LU detractors call the projects "pork," in most cases they serve critical local and national transportation needs identified by state officials. Even if you don't like earmarks, there's an important principle at stake in this debate. Using highway project money for Katrina relief would undo the precedent we worked so hard to set with TEA-21, that all money collected from gas taxes be used exclusively for transportation improvements. That would be a major step backward for the highway program.

With the post-Katrina flurry calming down and gas prices falling, it looks less likely that Congress will reopen SAFETEA-LU or suspend the gas tax. But the recent debates on those issues demonstrate that despite all the discussion of highway issues during the recent reauthorization, there are still many members of Congress who don't understand the facts about roads.

That means we - AED and AED members - have an ongoing job to educate lawmakers about how important infrastructure investment is to the nation's economy and to the safety of the driving public.

And now, a re-emerging threat makes our continued effort even more important. The radical environmental movement is showing signs of gearing up to once again fight new road construction and promote high-density, mass transportation-focused planning (Don't believe it? Just check out the sprawlkills.com Web site.)

AED played a leading role in the construction industry's response to the "Smart Growth" movement in the late 1990s. We're working to make sure our members and allies are prepared to deal with the challenge this time around as well.

The 2006 highway reauthorization bill may be done, but it's clear the highway debate is far from over.

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Article Categories:  Public Policy