In a recent column discussing the inane transportation bill proposed by the House, Isaiah J. Poole noted this charming piece of legislative integrity—admittedly, no doubt used by both parties since forever: “A more bipartisan Senate bill, which is not nearly as ambitious as the White House would prefer but nonetheless has its blessing, was being hung up over Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s demand for an amendment denying aid to Egypt over the government’s detention of some America citizens and Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s amendment that would permit employers to deny coverage for health services that run counter to the employer’s ‘religious beliefs and moral convictions.’”
The relevance of these two stunts to transportation funding will—no doubt—be revealed to all of us at the appropriate time. Our tax dollars hard at work….
When does it start to get better?
As I noted in two prior posts about this legislation (here and here), the philosophy/ideology behind the bill’s intent to eliminate assured financing (insufficient though it is) for mass transit in favor of more money for roads is what’s most troubling. I keep hoping that at some point, some legislator from the GOP will have the balls to accept reality and propose legislation that will actually mean something long-term and for our collective well-being.
I’ve admitted before and will say again, I pretend no expertise in transportation legislation or its funding. I come to these discussions with concerns about the strategies employed in light of what I believe is an even more serious and long-lasting problem for all of us: inadequate energy resources to provide us all with business-as-usual lifestyles—current economic conditions aside. The failure to incorporate public transportation on a much broader scale than Congress seems capable of understanding creates a serious deficiency in our ability to adapt in the future to a society with less energy resources at our disposal—if continued growth is a goal.
Typical arguments include the following:
[T]ransit has firmly secured its place in the federal budget and has acquired a large and vocal constituency in Congress which can be counted upon to defend its interests….
Restoring the Highway Trust Fund to its original mission of being a source of funds solely for the federal-aid highway program would accomplish several things. First, the program would no longer need to rely on speculative royalties from future oil and gas leases, as currently proposed in the House bill. Second, the Trust Fund would not need to be periodically propped up with contributions from the General Fund. Third, the principle of the highway program paid for with user fees would be maintained. Lastly, the House bill would return the federal-aid highway program to its original roots. It would restore the program’s lost sense of purpose and focus Trust Fund resources on what they always were meant to do—preserve and renew the nation’s prized asset, its interstate highway system. 
A few comments are in order.
As to the first point about transit’s defenders in Congress, a wonderful sound bite which means absolutely nothing in this Congress with its Tea Party-dominated inability to think, plan, or legislate beyond next week. “Defend” transit all you want, but if no one is paying any attention, it loses some of its vigor and impact.
“[T]he program would no longer need to rely on speculative royalties…” It never had to! That’s like retirement planning via the lottery. It’s an idiotic proposal to begin with, duly lambasted by many with far more understanding than I possess, and merits exactly no discussion or consideration.
As for eliminating the “need to be periodically propped up with contributions from the General Fund,” the House could actually … you know, legislate intelligently and put together a plan, even if, GASP! it contained ideas from the left. What a concept!
“[T]he principle of the highway program [being] paid for with user fees would be maintained.” Really? “Principle” sounds good; reality tells a different story.
Long before this legislation was drafted, Tanya Snyder discussed the Republican Party’s expected antics when Congress would eventually get around to … you know … do what we pay them to do—legislate!
You’ve heard it a thousand times from the highway lobby: Roads pay for themselves through ‘user fees’ — a.k.a. gas taxes and tolls — whereas transit is a drain on the taxpayer. They use this argument to push for new roads, instead of transit, as fiscally prudent investments.
The myth of the self-financed road meets its match today in the form of a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group: Do Roads Pay For Themselves? (link) The answer is a resounding ‘no.’ All told, the authors calculate that road construction has sucked $600 billion out of America’s public purse since the dawn of the interstate system. 
Quoting Dan Smith of U.S. PIRG, Ms. Snyder noted that: “Road advocates use these myths about the gas tax being this user fee and that highways pay for themselves to get preferential treatment, and to get a larger chunk of the dedicated fund.”
Paying a toll is a user fee; paying the gas tax when you fill your tank is not a user fee. Not very complicated, but you’ll find almost no one on the Right who dares explain that simple fact. As the above-referenced report makes clear, highways do not pay for themselves—period! Great talking point offered to the uninformed, but not true … if that kind of stuff matters—which, for some of us, it does.
And Mr. Orski’s final point, that this legislation will “restore the program’s lost sense of purpose and focus Trust Fund resources on what they always were meant to do— preserve and renew the nation’s prized asset, its interstate highway system.” Hate to break the news to those on the Right so desperate to return to Mayberry RFD, but this is 2012. Times have changed.
More changes are in the offing, and the GOP’s determination to keep us locked into a fossil-fuel dependent transportation system at the expense of our future well-being may not be such a good thing, great sound bites notwithstanding. And as Ms. Snyder made clear in the article I cited above, the gas tax/Highway Trust Fund—created during the Hoover Administration—was not intended solely for highways. Only during the 17 year period during which the interstate state was being built were federal gas tax revenues directed exclusively to roads. “Since 1973, the gas tax has been used for a variety of transportation programs and has even been used, on occasion, to pay down the deficit.” Facts….
And of course, no GOP-inspired legislation these days can be marketed without a snarky, irrelevant, and misleading statement or two, Right?
The new infrastructure bill no longer obligates states to spend highway funding on non-highway activities, such as museums or landscaping. But spending for mass transit appears to continue, even though there are better uses for the funds. States now spend 20 percent of their Highway Trust Fund allocation on mass transit, yet only two percent of passenger miles are used by mass transit.…
Just as users of roads should pay all of their costs, such as construction and maintenance, so should users of mass transit. If individual states want to subsidize mass transit, they should do it out of their own revenues. With Uncle Sam broke, the Federal government should not be subsidizing expensive mass transit systems. 
Just wondering how much of the funding states are obligated to use on “museums or landscaping?” All of it? Half? A third? Ten percent? Five? Perhaps less? A wild guess on my part, but I’m betting that “museums or landscaping” aren’t a primary focus, but we wouldn’t want to clue in the uninformed about that, now would we? And the lame “passenger mile” standard used by the Right is addressed nicely by Eric Jaffe here as well as in the report cited above, but I’ll admit it is a popular sound bite: “20 percent … for two percent” usage sure does sound unfair! But why add context if that ruins the point?
“Uncle Sam” is not “broke”, but it is another Page One sound bite from the Right’s playbook, which does induce an appropriate measure of fear in the electorate. Nice strategy, huh? [Kinda like “Cheerful” Newt Gingrich’s uplifting comment in Debate # 4367 held in Arizona two weeks ago: “But everybody needs to understand — and by the way, we live in an age when we have to genuinely worry about nuclear weapons going off in our own cities. So everybody who serves in the fire department, in the police department, not just the first responders, but our National Guard, whoever is going to respond, all of us are more at risk today, men and women, boys and girls, than at any time in the history of this country.”]
Writing on the “we’re broke” theme, commenting on Speaker of the House John Boehner’s identical comment last year, E. J. Dionne offered this:
Bloomberg News looked at Boehner’s statement and declared simply: ‘It’s wrong.’ As Bloomberg’s David J. Lynch wrote: ‘The U.S. today is able to borrow at historically low interest rates, paying 0.68 percent on a two-year note that it had to offer at 5.1 percent before the financial crisis began in 2007. Financial products that pay off if Uncle Sam defaults aren’t attracting unusual investor demand. And tax revenue as a percentage of the economy is at a 60-year low, meaning if the government needs to raise cash and can summon the political will, it could do so.’
Precisely. A phony metaphor is being used to hijack the nation’s political conversation and skew public policies to benefit better-off Americans and hurt most others.
America’s Tea Party has a simple fiscal message: The United States is broke. This is factually incorrect—U.S. government securities remain one of the safest investments in the world—but the claim serves the purpose of dramatizing the federal budget and creating a great deal of hysteria around America’s current debt levels. This then produces the fervent belief that government spending must be cut radically—and now. 
So I’ll ask the same question raised in the first post discussing this legislation: “How much money, time, effort, and resources can we be expected to waste by devoting all of those assets to highways and roadways used by gasoline-chugging vehicles … highways and roadways and vehicles whose usage and very existence will be challenged in decades to come when the availability of affordable, efficient, and plentiful fossil fuels is no longer routinely assured to the masses?”
Or this, from last week’s related post: “[W]hat transportation options will be available to us if we continue to allow shortsighted, narrow-minded ideologies dictate how we plan and prepare for our collective future?”
* as his Wikipedia bio notes, Simon Johnson, author of the quote, “is the ‘Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He has held a wide variety of academic and policy-related positions, including Professor of Economics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. From March 2007 through the end of August 2008, he was Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund” so really … what would he know about American being “broke”?
 http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2012/02/now-were-getting-political.php; Now We’re Getting Political by Fawn Johnson – 02.06.12; Response from Ken Orski: In Defense of the House Highway Bill
 http://dc.streetsblog.org/2011/01/04/actually-highway-builders-roads-don%E2%80%99t-pay-for-themselves/; Actually, Highway Builders, Roads Don’t Pay For Themselves by Tanya Snyder – 01.04.11
 Now We’re Getting Political by Fawn Johnson – 02.06.12; Response from Diana Furchtgott-Roth: How to Improve the Highway Bill
 http://www.slate.com/articles/business/project_syndicate/2011/08/the_tea_partys_circular_logic.html; The Tea Party’s Circular Logic – Its revolt undermines the private sector more than it reins in “big government” by Simon Johnson – 08.16.11