Every five years, Congress reauthorizes the highway spending bill and each time there is a fight over which states get how much in federal road funds. The fight is on again this year, but with virtual completion of the interstate system, some other basic issues need to be examined.
For example: Should states assume a bigger share of highway programs? Should the emphasis shift from new construction to repair of highways and bridges? Should more money be put into mass transit?This week the Senate, on a 91-7 vote, passed a $123 billion version of the Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, dealing in a limited way with some of these issues. It kept the federal share of highway projects higher than President Bush wanted, but put more emphasis on maintenance, mass transit and local control.
Bush sought to reduce the federal share of spending on local and regional roads to 60 percent. But the measure as passed kept the federal share of the cost of completing the interstate system at 90 percent and Washington would pay 80 percent of the costs of most other roads.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., a principal architect of the bill, sought to emphasize spending on maintenance and efficient use of existing roads, declaring, "We have poured enough concrete."
He got part of what he wanted, but senators added a new 184,000-mile National Highway System of primary and secondary roads urged by Bush and authorized money for its maintenance and improvement.
Before passing the highway bill, senators had to settle a fight over efforts to redraw the whole highway spending formula drastically. That could have resulted in less money for Utah and other Western states and more for a number of Eastern and Southern states.
During fiscal 1987-90, 21 states paid more into the federal Highway Trust Fund through gasoline taxes than they received. Utah got back $1.51 for every dollar it paid into the fund. Idaho received $2.19 for each dollar, but the big winner was Alaska, with a $6.13 return on the dollar.
The rebellion was led by Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., whose state is one of those on the minus side. Warner's plan would base the formula on "where the cars are," thus favoring more heavily populated states.
Lawmakers dealt with the objections by taking $8 billion from Highway Trust Fund surpluses and distributing it to so-called donor states. That sort of log-rolling hardly seems the best use of the money when nation's decaying highway infrastructure faces so many critical needs.
Senators recognzed the unsatisfactory nature of their effort, but ducked the issue by expressing the hope that a House-Senate conference will work out a better solution when it deals with an inevitable compromise bill.
Congress needs to quit playing politics with the Highway Trust Fund and get down to serious business about what kind of a policy the nation is going to have regarding transportation. It's time to look in new directions, keeping in mind what the country can afford.