Monday, May 18, 2015

Congress needs to step up, too

On April 11, 2015, the Idaho legislature passed a bill to increase funding to maintain Idaho’s roads and bridges by nearly $95 million per year. It was a much-needed boost for Idaho’s – and the Treasure Valley’s – transportation system.

However, call me greedy, but it is not enough. COMPASS estimates a $159 million per year shortfall for Ada and Canyon Counties alone. While the additional funding will help, it will be divided statewide, so will only represent a drop in the bucket for the Treasure Valley.

We’ll continue to work with Idaho citizens and the Idaho legislature to find ways to meet transportation funding needs. However, while the Idaho legislature made some much-needed progress in 2015, the burden doesn’t fall entirely on them. Congress needs to step up, too.

There are two interrelated issues on the federal level that are hampering our ability to address our transportation needs.

First, we need new federal transportation legislation. The current act, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or “MAP-21,” expires May 31, 2015 – just 13 days from now! This bill was passed in July 2012 and was originally set to expire – and be replaced with a new bill – no later than October 2014. Shortly before the bill expired, Congress extended it until May 31, 2015.

May 31 is coming quickly and it appears that members of Congress will once again pass a short-term extension. These short-term extensions simply delay substantive action and hamper the ability of local and state transportation agencies to implement transportation projects.

Without a long-term transportation authorization bill, federal transportation funding will continue to be distributed in drips and drabs. The transportation bill is what allows the federal government to distribute federal transportation funding around the nation. If the bill were to expire without being extended, federally funded transportation projects would grind to a halt, as funding cannot be distributed without a transportation bill to authorize that distribution.

Planning for future projects would also stall, because states and regions don’t know how much funding they can expect in the long term, and what policy or priority changes a new authorization bill might bring. Plus, as projects delay, project costs increase, thus putting additional burden on the already strapped Highway Trust Fund.

This, in turn, brings us to the second issue: federal transportation funding. Quite simply, the federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money. The fund, which is used to provide transportation funding to states and local agencies, is funded through the federal fuel tax. That tax hasn’t been increased since 1993, meaning we are trying to pay for 2015 projects with a 1993 income. It just doesn’t work. Not only are we behind by 22 years’ worth of inflation, but decreases in driving and increases in fuel efficiency mean that the amount of money being collected is not keeping pace with needs.

The highway trust fund nearly went broke last August, but was “saved” at the last minute with an infusion of other funds. There is talk again of using other funds to contribute to the Highway Trust Fund – mainly by making changes to the tax code. This idea appeals to many, as it raises more funding for the Highway Trust Fund without raising taxes. However, it is not a viable long-term solution.

We need a reliable funding source for the Highway Trust Fund to pay for transportation projects and we need a long-term transportation bill to allow the funds to be spent and to provide our transportation agencies with long-term policies, priorities, and expectations so they can plan for future needs.

The question is, how do we get there?
  • We need Congress to step up and raise the fuel tax and index that fuel tax to inflation so that we are not in this same situation again in a year, or two, or ten.
  • We need to recognize that the fuel tax, even if raised, will not be able to cover our long-term transportation needs due to increasing fuel efficiency.
  • We need Congress to start seriously looking at long-term funding options, such as a vehicle mile tax, to eventually replace, or augment, the federal fuel tax without dipping into other existing funds.
  • We need to tell our Congressmen that we, their constituents, understand that sometimes the right decision and the popular decision are not the same thing, and that we have their backs. 
We need a modern, efficient transportation system to support economic prosperity, a high quality of life, and a better life for our children.

Failure to act now simply kicks the can down the road. Let’s tell Congress that is not what we need.
Don’t let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks.

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Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho

COMPASS is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization responsible for transportation planning in Ada and Canyon Counties. The COMPASS Board comprises 39 members representing the cities, counties, highway districts, educational institutions, state agencies, and other entities within the two counties. COMPASS plays an important role in making decisions about future long-range transportation needs in the Treasure Valley, taking into consideration environmental and economic factors that affect the quality of life.