In April, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill to increase funding to maintain Idaho’s roads and bridges by nearly $95 million per year. It was a much-needed boost for Idaho’s transportation system.
Now, it’s Congress’ turn. We need Congress to address federal issues that are hampering our ability to address transportation needs.
First, we need new federal transportation legislation. The current act, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, was extended for a second time in May and is now scheduled to expire on July 31. This bill was passed in 2012 and was originally set to expire — and be replaced — no later than October 2014. Instead, Congress keeps extending the current bill a few months at a time. While there has been some movement in the Senate on a long-term reauthorization bill, it is far from a done deal.
Without a long-term transportation bill, federal transportation funding will continue to be distributed in drips and drabs. This hampers preparing for future projects, because states and regions don’t know how much funding they can expect in the long term, and what policy or priority changes a new bill might bring. Plus, as projects delay, costs increase, thus putting additional burden on the already strapped Highway Trust Fund.
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This, in turn, brings us to the second issue: federal transportation funding. The Highway Trust Fund is running out of money. The fund, which is used to provide transportation dollars to states and local agencies, is funded through the federal fuel tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993. Not only are we behind by 22 years’ worth of inflation, but decreases in driving and increases in fuel efficiency mean that the amount of money being collected is not keeping pace with needs.
The trust fund nearly went broke last August but was “saved” at the last minute with an infusion of other funds. There is talk again of using other funds to contribute to the Highway Trust Fund — mainly by making changes to the tax code. This idea appeals to many, as it raises more funding without raising taxes. However, it is not a viable long-term solution for our transportation and highway needs.
We need a reliable funding source for the Highway Trust Fund to pay for projects, and we need a long-term transportation bill to allow the funds to be spent and to provide our transportation agencies with long-term policies, priorities and expectations so they can plan for future needs.
How do we get there?
• We need Congress to step up and raise the fuel tax and index that fuel tax to inflation so that we are not in this same situation again in a year, or two, or 10.
• We need Congress to start seriously looking at long-term funding options, such as a vehicle mile tax, to eventually replace, or augment, the federal fuel tax without dipping into other existing funds.
• We need to tell our representatives that we, their constituents, understand that sometimes the right decision and the popular decision are not the same thing, and that we have their backs.
We need a modern, efficient transportation system to support economic prosperity, a high quality of life and a better life for our children.
Failure to act now simply kicks the can down the road. Let’s tell Congress that is not what we need.
Matt Stoll is the executive director of COMPASS, the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho. COMPASS serves as the metropolitan planning organization for Ada and Canyon counties and is responsible for transportation planning for the two-county area.