prince traffic02.jpg

This photo from September shows roadwork on Prince Street, with traffic backed up from Chestnut to King Street.

THE ISSUE

Congress has seven days to beat a deadline to keep federal transportation dollars flowing. If House and Senate negotiators cannot reach agreement on bills by Thanksgiving, the 2016 construction season could be slowed. The American Society of Engineers grades America’s infrastructure a D+ overall. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says that, under the bills’ proposed $325 billion for six years, "the result will be more traffic.”

You get what you pay for, and we’re getting it — as we travel on crumbling roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.

The federal gasoline tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, resulting in it providing only $34 billion of the approximately $50 billion spent per year on federal transportation projects. Transportation Secretary Foxx says about $67 billion per year is needed.

The underfunding in the bill concerns many — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Lancaster Chamber of Business & Industry.

The U.S. Chamber was among a group of 40 business organizations and unions that sent a letter to House and Senate leaders concerning the bills. The groups — also including the AFL-CIO, the American Trucking Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Traffic Safety Services Association — said they want “increased federal investment levels” beyond those included in the House and Senate bills.

Besides working to authorize less funding than is needed, both houses of Congress, apparently, also are hoping to get more than they’re willing to pay for on infrastructure: The House and Senate bills provide funds for only three of the six years of spending their bills would authorize.

At this point, they might as well reconcile their underfunded plans and get a bill to the president’s desk. Slowing down next year’s construction season would only make things worse — both for traffic and safety.

But, really, Congress should be able to do better than this.

Our federal lawmakers have not passed a transportation funding bill lasting more than two years since 2005. And that’s because Congress can’t bring itself to find the money. The federal highway funding shortfall is estimated to be $16 billion per year.

And that’s odd because federal fuels taxes — at 18.4 cents for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel — are nearly perfect user taxes. Perhaps a similar tax could be added to natural gas fuel, as more bus and truck fleets are using that fuel, or Congress could consider a national vehicle registration fee to overcome the free-rider effect of federal fuels taxes for electric vehicles.

But, for now, our roads, bridges and transit systems need more funding to keep them traffic-worthy and safe. Fuels taxes are in place. And, with U.S. gasoline prices nearly 70 cents below what they were a year ago, now seems like a good time to raise federal fuels taxes. Even a temporary hike, kept in place until Congress finds another way to raise the money needed to address this critical need, would do.

It’s been more than eight years since 13 people died and 145 were injured when the Interstate 35W bridge fell into the Mississippi River during Minneapolis’ evening rush hour.

After that dramatic demonstration of the need to improve transportation infrastructure nationwide, our leaders in Washington appear to have sounded the retreat. All of us who use roads, bridges, buses and trains should ask them to find the courage to pay for the infrastructure on which we travel.

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