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Abe Scarr,
Illinois PIRG

Congress Punts for 33rd Time in Six Years on Federal Transportation Spending, then Leaves Town

Stopgap Measure Highlights Record of Inaction and Budget Gimmicks
For Immediate Release

With Congress having just passed another short-term transportation patch to extend current transportation law until the end of July, members left town on recess. The new patch marks the 33rd time in the last six years that Congress has relied upon a short-term extension of prior legislation for transportation funding, rather than find consensus on a long-term bill.

“The problem isn’t just that funding for infrastructure shouldn’t be in a perpetual state of crisis,” said Abe Scarr, Illinois PIRG Director. “The endless fire drills also keep Congress fixated on budget gimmicks to patch us to the next crisis rather than reforms to fix the system. It’s ridiculous that our elected representatives cannot seem to do better when our national transportation system is at stake.”

Some members of Congress are similarly frustrated. “Here we are again, another short-term patch,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It’s a heck of a way to run a nation. It’s embarrassing.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairmen Bill Shuster has even speculated that Congress is likely to resort to yet another short-term extension before members take their August recess. Such an extension would be the 34th time Congress has punted on transportation funding.

The Highway Trust Fund is expected to have just enough money to reach the new July 31st expiration date before running into the red. Since 2009 Congress has relied on using short-term budget gimmicks to extend funding authority to the next deadline.

For instance in 2012, Congress introduced a gimmick called, “pension smoothing” to help offset the cost of a 9th extension of the previous long-term transportation funding bill SAFETEA-LU which expired in 2009. Pension smoothing permitted employers for the next ten years to delay contributions to their employee pension plans, temporarily reducing corporate tax deductions and thereby increasing expected tax revenue. Congress counted ten years of expected revenue increases from this measure toward funding just a 26 month transportation bill.

Aside from issues with potentially underfunding pension obligations, the measure doesn’t produce any actual revenue savings that should be properly counted as paying for transportation needs. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget concluded, “pension smoothing” will actually lose money for the Treasury in the long-term.

Illinois PIRG has called for future transportation funding to be accompanied by major reforms to ensure that transportation dollars are better spent. “We need real spending reform to ensure that we build and repair the projects we truly need,” said Scarr. “It has to be done right.”

A major problem identified in a recent report by Illinois PIRG and Frontier Group, titled “Who Pays For Roads”, explained that gas taxes and other user fees paid by drivers amount to less than half the total cost of building and maintaining our roads, but the myth persists that gas taxes pay for roads, making it harder to enact reforms that solve America’s transportation funding challenges. 

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