President Barack Obama's highway spending plan has only two problems: The math doesn't work and the politics don't, either. Though the proposal gives the White House talking points as Democrats enter the midterm elections, it is not a viable map for addressing the long backlog of transportation needs. The president and Congress need a long-term plan that includes enough real money to build and maintain a modern system.
Obama used the backdrop of New York's worn Tappan Zee Bridge last week to highlight the sorry state of America's infrastructure and to call on Congress to move quickly on a new highway bill. But the plan the administration put forward last month, called Grow America, is not grounded in reality. Though the measure includes new money for roads and bridges, it relies on budgets gimmicks to patch over the fundamental weakness with highway funding. And it opens a troubling door for states to shun their responsibilities by allowing them to carve out toll lanes in the existing (and free) national highway system.
The president would spend $302 billion over the next four years on highways, freight and mass transit projects, which the White House touts is $150 billion over current spending levels. But the added spending would not really reach $150 billion. Because of shortfalls of $56 billion by 2018 in the highway trust funds, the additional amount would total $94 billion. That would be one-time money, not a recurring investment. Beyond calling for closing unspecified corporate tax loopholes, the plan is unclear about where the new revenue would come from.
The proposal is not a serious substitute for a transportation policy of the 21st century. In a major status report last year, the Department of Transportation found that only half the nation's highways were rated in "good" condition. Two-thirds of the country's 604,000 bridges are more than a quarter-century old, and one in five is deficient. The backlog for repairs alone is about $86 billion and growing by the year. The nation is playing catch up as other countries invest and improve their competitive edge.
Transportation needs a broader revenue base. The federal gas tax of 18.4-cents a gallon hasn't been increased since 1993. That's why the government has transferred $54 billion from the general fund to cover highway spending since 2008. Even Obama's plan falls short of the tens of billions of dollars in additional spending the DOT says is necessary for the nation to maintain and improve its transportation system.
A Senate committee last week approved a bill to keep transit spending at current levels for the next six years. That would keep the highway trust fund from going broke by 2015, but it also guarantees the highways would continue to bleed the treasury. Higher gas taxes at least indexed to inflation, fees that charge motorists for the miles they drive and other progressive measures would replace declining revenue from gas taxes. Those gas tax revenues have been dropping because of increased vehicle fuel efficiency and less driving during the down economy. Obama and Congress need to create a transportation funding system that addresses the need to move forward and reflects the changing nature of how motorists use the roads.