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The Highway Bill We Needed, Not the Highway Bill We Want

Motor City Blogman

President Obama signed a $305 billion, five-year transportation infrastructure bill last Friday. It was the biggest, most important bill to receive widespread bipartisan support under his administration and came after years of short-term extensions that began when George W. Bush was still in the White House.

It raises no new funds. It calls for no increase in the federal gasoline tax, which has been frozen at 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 cents per gallon for diesel) since 1993. The bill, "nearly a decade in the making," according to Politico, "relies on about $70 billion in unrelated pay-fors to keep the Highway Trust Fund on stable footing." Of that amount, $53 billion is a transfer from the U.S. Federal Reserve.

So the nation's bankers are not pleased, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO both like the bill. Amendments and riders include an order to remove trucking-company safety scores from a public website, reports "PBS NewsHour." The Amalgamated Transit Union earned a government requirement to direct transit agencies to "take steps to protect bus drivers from assault"; a provision authorizes creation of a "national advisory committee made up of travel and tourism industry officials to develop a national strategy for ensuring that transportation policies address the needs of travelers"; and the New York, Connecticut and Wisconsin dairy industries earned a provision allowing milk trucks to exceed interstate highway federal weight limits in some cases, according to "NewsHour." Perhaps they should switch to 2 percent.

Another bipartisan bill, the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act of 2015, was folded into the much-larger highway bill, according to SEMA, which supported the provision to exempt replica cars from certain National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Environmental Protection Agency rules. It covers manufacturers who assemble no more than 325 replicars a year. Reps. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, and Gene Green, D-Texas, sponsored the original bill.

I'm not going to debate the merits of being allowed to build a few hundred "new" Shelby Cobras without airbags or catalytic converters (though I'm for it) versus being allowed to drive overweight milk trucks on the interstate, but I will admit that all this political cheer over a short-sighted infrastructure rebuilding plan has me flummoxed.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill pieced together funding in order to avoid the "T" word. As gasoline prices dip below $2 per gallon in much of the U.S., the bill directs sale of 66 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, according to "PBS NewsHour," "in order to raise $6.5 billion," about 2 percent of the five-year budget. Except, PBS notes, sales of the reserves are not scheduled to commence until 2023, which is three years after the transportation bill expires.

The bill also includes more than $10 billion over five years for Amtrak (which includes $200 million for installation of positive control technology, a system on-par with road vehicle safety systems of 10 years ago), $12 billion for mass transit, and $1 billion for vehicle safety programs. The bill does not, "PBS NewsHour" says, provide funding for these programs.

In essence, the five-year, $305-billion transportation bill ignores a couple of basic truths. One is that a wider variety of transportation alternatives, including rail, public transit, and bicycle lanes, potentially translates to less traffic for those of us traveling by car and to reduced demand for oil. The second basic truth is that transportation infrastructure is very expensive.

That second truth is an argument against those who dismiss the first by arguing public transit and rail never pay for themselves with the rider fees charged. At the current gasoline and diesel tax rates, our federal highways aren't paying for themselves, either, and that's why they're falling apart and threatening our wheels, tires, springs and shocks, and sometimes our lives.

During the Industrial Age, our nation's erstwhile first-class system of transit rail was made possible by immigrant labor earning near-slave wages. Where would our airline industry, now down to one major U.S. manufacturer, have been without Pentagon spending on military business? Similarly, when President Eisenhower proposed an interstate system inspired by Germany's autobahn (though with less robust roads covering a much-larger country), it was in the name of national security. (Perhaps Ike was a bigger Socialist than Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

Though I admit that I've read only news reports and summaries of the transportation bill, not its 1,300 pages, I feel safe in saying it's far less impressive than what the Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate claim.

It's another patch job that doesn't do anything to anticipate the vast changes automakers plan for the next five years, including increasingly semi-automated driving and potentially more pure-electric vehicles. It cowers from an easy funding source, hiking the gas and diesel taxes, which Detroit automakers have supported for years. And in fact it's as shortsighted as General Motors and Chrysler were before their bankruptcies.

This long-term patch job gives Capitol Hill time to relax and refocus its bickering back on more contentious issues. I'd like to think Congress might use some of the remaining decade to produce something more substantive for when the current bill expires, but I fear another squandered opportunity.