WASHINGTON — The House budget passed by Republicans on Wednesday sent a clear message to transportation advocates: Find money or face serious cuts.
The Highway Trust Fund, which has been on a slide to bankruptcy since 2008, has been using stopgap money from Congress for years to keep the fund solvent.
What’s concerning the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is language in the budget that would cap annual Highway Trust Fund spending at the amount of revenue taken in during that same year.
This is particularly problematic because the federal gas tax — the primary funding source for the trust fund — hasn’t kept up with the nation’s infrastructure demands, in part because of more fuel-efficient vehicles and inflation.
Congress has been avoiding the problem by periodically filling the Highway Trust Fund with money from the general fund. And though those transfers have sometimes been offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, the House-passed budget for 2016 would require it.
If it was ever a simple process to keep the trust fund healthy, this would undoubtedly make it a complicated one. And if Congress doesn’t transfer cash to the Highway Trust Fund, cuts to state transportation agencies would be brutal.
“This means there would be a 99 percent reduction for fiscal year 2016 in federal funds going to the states,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said less than an hour before a vote on the budget. “It would mean many tens of billions of dollars forgone, and thousands of projects delayed or canceled.”
The trust fund currently provides about $46 billion annually to the states for highways, transit, bridges and other transportation projects.
Estimates calculated by the Federal Highway Administration and distributed by Democrats on the House Transportation Committee show that if no new money is put into the trust fund, states would lose anywhere between $145 million (New Hampshire) to $3.2 billion (California) in new project funding.
Gareth Lacy, spokesman for the California State Transportation Agency, said a multi-billion dollar hit would obviously hurt the state’s efforts to improve its infrastructure. Year-to-year changes in spending, he added, would make long-term construction projects more difficult for the state.
“We’re waiting for the process to play out a little bit more,” he said. “But we’re certainly tracking developments, because the bulk of our funding comes from state and federal gas taxes.”
The Georgia Department of Transportation, which could lose $1.1 billion in new funding for 2016, according to the FHWA analysis, has already delayed several projects because of other uncertainty with the Highway Trust Fund, spokeswoman Natalie Dale said. She was not aware of the House’s budget proposal, but “if that is indeed the case,” she said, “that would probably affect us pretty significantly.”
This isn’t the first year House Republicans have tried to balance spending on the Highway Trust Fund from its previous levels. Identical language to what’s in this year’s House budget was included in last year’s proposed budget, and one of the two sections regarding the trust fund was also in the 2014 budget. Neither of those budgets made it past the Senate.
Congressional budgets, however, are not binding documents. Even if this year’s House version passes both chambers, it would only be legally enacted once Congress passes appropriations bills and the president signs them.
DeFazio said this approach to the Highway Trust Fund is in line with the conservative idea that transportation should be in the hands of the states. In a report accompanying the budget, the House Budget Committee offered the possibility of some states beginning a pilot program that would have them forgo federal money, opt out of the federal gas tax and fund their transportation programs solely through state taxes.
Shuster, who voted to pass the budget Wednesday, declined to comment for this article.
Asked how such a plan could make it into the final House budget, DeFazio paused.
“I guess they tailored their budget to pacify the right-wing, Tea Party extremists in their caucus,” he said. “There are still several dozen, or maybe 40, people that think devolving the duties to coordinate the transportation system from the national government is a good idea.”
The Highway Trust Fund has been on unstable footing for years, and the latest congressional authorization for it will expire at the end of May. While both Republicans and Democrats say they want to pass a long-term fix before that deadline, specific policy ideas, such as taxing overseas corporate earnings or reducing the number of programs that qualify for trust fund money, tend to break down on party lines.
The budget does not specifically address the May 31 deadline or set a long-term plan for the Highway Trust Fund.
Reach reporter Sean McMinn at [email protected] or 202-408-1488. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.