Will the highway bill lead to funding problems down the road?

The scope of the $300 billion highway bill recently passed by Congress will touch roads and bridges in every state and most counties for a half decade. Since 2009, there has been no long-term or stable federal funding to address needed transportation fixes. But critics question where that funding for the new bill is coming from. Political director Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    That trip over the river and through the woods might go a little more smoothly in future years, thanks to the big highway bill that became law this month. It is the largest deal of its kind in a decade.

    And, as political director Lisa Desjardins reports, it's attracting both cheers and concern.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The scope of this highway bill is vast, over $300 billion that will touch roads and bridges in every state and most counties for half-a-decade, a dramatic law that hits very familiar places to Americans.

  • HANS RIEMER, Montgomery County Councilman, Maryland:

    Behind me is one of the most congested intersections in the state of Maryland. And we have had the designs completed for this upgrade of this intersection for maybe 10 years. It's shovel-ready.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Meet Hans Riemer, a man who thinks about transportation a lot. He has to, as a councilman for traffic-heavy Montgomery County, Maryland, north of Washington, D.C.

    Riemer showed us this intersection that is a major bottleneck each morning. The county has had a fix ready for years, but it has been in limbo waiting for stable federal funding to help, because — listen to this fact — since 2009, Congress has limped through 34 short-term highway bills, and no stable funding to back big projects like this, until now.

  • HANS RIEMER:

    If the concern is, well, the federal government is not going to be there on the other end, don't — then there is a lot of pressure not to spend the money locally. And that is, you know, a — that is just a downward spiral really for everybody. So the fact that bill is done at least for a temporary funding fix is a great step forward.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader:

    It would be the longest-term bill to pass Congress in almost two decades.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed the highway bill as a priority, and the mega-deal was put together by usual adversaries, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. They hashed out a final agreement with House members and the new speaker.

    REP. PAUL RYAN, Speaker of the House: We're going to have a highway bill, which will help families and workers by rebuilding our infrastructure and giving a boost to our economy.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    It's good news for American drivers, for counties and for states trying to fix their roads. They will have five years of stable federal funding. But critics say, after that, there is a problem because of where the funding comes from.

    When created in the 1950s, the Highway Trust Fund was meant to rely on the federal gas tax for funding, but with lower gas prices and more fuel-efficient cars, the money coming in has dropped.

    Despite less gas tax money, this deal increases highway funding for the next five years. That may sound good, but it does this in controversial ways. One, it sells oil from America's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That sale won't happen until 2023, but this law spends the money now. Another issue, it takes $53 billion from the Federal Reserve's surplus accounts.

    MAYA MACGUINEAS, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget: So, unfortunately, instead of financing this in an honest, straightforward way, we're relying on budget gimmicks, one-time funding mechanisms, short-term measures that really are going to make the problem more difficult in the longer term, instead of fixing it.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Maya MacGuineas is the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Her organization wrote its own report, saying highways should be funded, but only by reliable sources. Their idea? Raise the gas tax.

  • MAYA MACGUINEAS:

    The reason that makes sense is, the biggest burden of that tax falls on the people who use the highway system. It's not quite a user fee, but it acts like a user fee in a lot of ways. The gas tax hasn't been increased in quite some time, so one of the proposals that is on the table, and that we think makes an awful lot of sense, is gradually increase that gas tax.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Back in Maryland, the state gas tax just went up this summer, specifically for transportation.

    County Councilman Hans Riemer is grateful for the new federal highway law and hopes it brings changes to his most-hated intersection, but he is already thinking of five years from now, when the money runs out.

  • HANS RIEMER:

    I think the most important thing, of course, is a sense of stability to the commitment of the federal government to meet transportation needs. And whether that budget funding sources comes one way or the other, I am less concerned about that than the fact that the commitment is solid.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That concern goes beyond drivers to the economy. The new law and the highway fund it increases will support over half-a-million jobs across the country.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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