Nothing to brag about

After more than 30 short-term extensions that have kept the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) solvent since 2009, it probably came as no surprise that the latest reauthorisation came in the form of another three-month patch at the end of July. Still, ‘not surprising’ doesn’t mean ‘not disappointing’.

The Senate, however, in addition to passing the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015 (HR 3236), also passed another piece of legislation it describes as a multi-year transportation bill.

On the face of it, the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act (Drive Act), a $350 billion bill that authorises funding for highway infrastructure investments for six years, is a positive step. Or, as Senators Jim Inhofe and Barbara Boxer, chairman and ranking member of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee respectively, described their bill’s passage – a “historical step forward”.

But upon closer examination, their praise seems slightly excessive.

While the Drive Act has a six-year horizon, only the first three years are paid for. What’s more, it is unclear where the funds will come from.

To learn more, Infrastructure Investor reached out to a spokesperson for the EPW Committee but was referred to Inhofe and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As readers know, McConnell wishes to utilise US oil reserves as a funding source, but both he and Inhofe failed to return a request for comment. Senator Boxer’s office in turn referred us back to the EPW Committee.

Given the lack of clarity on funding, we can sympathise with the House of Representatives’ decision to not vote on the Drive Act before breaking for the summer recess.

Bill Shuster, House Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the Senate bill a “positive step” but wanted more time to “produce a fiscally responsible long-term proposal”.

Again, a reasonable decision, but with one caveat. House lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, view international tax reform as a funding solution for the HTF – a coherent and fiscally responsible approach the Senate would likely support. The House could have produced its own bill, one with greater specifics around funding, at any time. Crumbling bridges, decaying roads and outdated transit systems are not new features of US infrastructure.
Indeed, insufficient funding has been a problem at least since last September when the latest reauthorisation, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act, expired.

With the new deadline set to expire at the end of October, we would expect the House to take this up as soon as it returned in the fall. So far, there have been no new developments.

David Narefsky, a partner at law firm Mayer Brown pointed out, “this has to get accomplished. There seem to be some real differences between the House and the Senate that isn’t so much a matter of Republicans vs. Democrats, but more the House vs. the Senate,” he noted, referring to issues such as tax reform and revenue sources for the Highway Trust Fund.

Add to that the number of serious issues Congress has to tackle this session, including the broader budget, and it’s difficult to predict how the situation will play out. “It’s possible that the latest short-term solution will turn into another short-term solution that will take us through the end of the calendar year,” Narefsky said.

With several bridges having already collapsed – most recently in July when a bridge on California’s Interstate 10 (I-10) was washed out due to flash flooding – it should be more obvious to lawmakers that US infrastructure is in need of serious, long-term financing, and fast.

Unless the House and Senate get their act together, events such as these will continue to happen and with worse consequences. If that’s the case, people may start using a different acronym to refer to the Highway Trust Fund. Perhaps, rather than the HTF, the ‘WTF’?