IN August, the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money, and Congress is in a dither. As members consider proposals ranging from gas taxes to general cuts in federal spending, perhaps Americans ought to be grateful that gridlocked body is debating an issue of significance.
But Congress doesn’t need to rethink transportation in the next 30 days. Its job for now is to make sure the Highway Trust Fund doesn’t run dry.
States are counting on that money. Like the $2.7 billion allocated to the central Puget Sound area over the next four years — traffic signals in Auburn, pavement in Bellevue, bike lanes in Seattle, and so on. Congress must quickly supplement the fund with $10 billion. Otherwise, it would trigger a slowdown in transportation spending nationally. That’s bad news for motorists, construction workers and the national economy. The Washington Roundtable and the Puget Sound Regional Council are sounding alarms.
Congress has been supplementing the fund since 2001 — the current federal gas tax, 18.4 cents a gallon, hasn’t kept up with the demand. What’s new is that Congress has developed a taste for brinkmanship. Suddenly a problem everyone has known about for years needs to be fixed right this minute.
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So Congress now faces a spate of ideas, such as raising the federal gas tax by 12 cents — probably a bad idea for states like Washington that are struggling to raise their own gas taxes, and it’s an idea that won’t work over the long haul anyway as cars become more fuel-efficient.
Democrats including Washington’s U.S. Sen. Patty Murray want to whack corporate tax loopholes and some Republicans want a general belt-tightening. U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., offers an intriguing plan to replace the federal gas tax with a barrel tax indexed to inflation. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recessed committee deliberations Thursday for negotiations with the House.
That is a good debate to have, but it is not one that can conclude in 30 days. Congress needs to deal with first things first.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).