Washington gridlock could mean the delay of $1.4 million in federal funds to the Rome Transit Department.
At issue is the federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides money for highway and transit programs across the country. That fund is dropping and soon will dip below $4 billion, a cushion federal officials say is necessary for incoming fuel tax revenue to cover outgoing payments to states.
Rome officials recently updated the city’s Transit Committee on the shortfall that would delay reimbursements to the Rome Transit Department. Kirk Milam, the city’s public services director, said $800,000 in federal funds for the RTD’s operations and $600,000 for its capital funding is potentially in jeopardy.
States could start feeling the pain as soon as August if Congress fails to act, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a letter to states.
A second deadline is coming Sept. 30 when the government’s authority to spend money on transportation programs expires.
As many as 700,000 jobs could be at risk, President Barack Obama told a crowd of about 500 gathered on a sweltering day beneath the Key Bridge spanning the Potomac River.
“That would be like Congress threatening to lay off the entire population of Denver, Seattle or Boston,” he said.
Revenue from federal gas and diesel taxes continues to flow into the trust fund, but the total is expected to be about $8 billion short of the transportation aid the government has allocated to states this year. Over the next six years, a gap of about $100 billion is forecast if transportation spending is maintained at current levels.
At the same time, transportation experts and industries that depend on the nation’s highways to get their products to market are calling for greater spending on transportation to shore up aging roads, bridges and tunnels and to accommodate population growth.
“Right now there are more than 100,000 active projects across the country where workers are paving roads and rebuilding bridges and modernizing our transit systems,” Obama said. “And soon states may have to choose which projects to continue and which ones to put the brakes on because they’re running out of money.”
Already some states are cutting back on construction projects because of the uncertainty of federal funding, Foxx said. “I think people will see it in the traffic. I think people will see it in the condition of our roads,” he said.
The reason for the shortfall is that revenue from the federal 18.4-cent-a-gallon gasoline and 24.4-cent-a-gallon diesel tax hasn’t kept pace with transportation needs. The taxes haven’t been increased in more than 20 years, while construction and other costs have continued to go up.
The most obvious solution is to raise fuel taxes, which is what several blue-ribbon commissions have recommended and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Associations have urged. But neither political party nor the White House wants to get out front on a proposal to raise taxes in an election year. Foxx didn’t rule out Obama signing legislation that raises the gas tax, but he indicated the administration doesn’t believe there is enough support in Congress to pass a gas tax increase.
“We have said if Congress acts on something, we’ll keep an open mind,” Foxx said.
Instead, Obama is pushing a plan to close tax loopholes and use the revenue to pay for increased transportation spending for the next four years.
“We have a proposal we think is politically acceptable,” Foxx said.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., floated a similar proposal in April. But many Republicans say they’d rather offset increases in transportation spending with cuts to other government programs rather than tax increases. And many lawmakers say they want to continue to the trust fund’s “user pays” principle by raising money from people who most use the roads, if not through a gas tax then some other means.
Nearly a dozen proposals to address the problem have been floated in Congress, but none have gained traction. House Republicans recently proposed a short-term patch based on savings associated with ending Saturday mail delivery by the postal service. The plan died a quick death when it became clear that many GOP lawmakers wouldn’t support it.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., offered a plan last week to keep transportation aid flowing for another six months. The plan, which included raising taxes on large trucks, ran into opposition from Republican senators. He dropped the truck tax, but Republicans say they want more spending cuts as part of the package. Further action is expected when Congress returns to work from a July Fourth break.
In the House, Camp has said he will offer a new plan to shore up the trust fund next week.