The Congressional Budget Office offered lengthy, detailed (and dry) testimony last week that outlined the options for paying for highways. Limiting spending to the amount garnered from the current fuel tax would result in $13 billion less per year than the current amount, CBO said. Spending enough to maintain the current performance of the highway system would require about $14 billion more per year than current levels. Funding projects whose benefits exceed their costs requires more than just maintenance, meaning federal annual spending would have to double, to about $94 billion annually.
The figures provide a good backdrop for a story that really isn't about numbers--it's about trust in government. Democrats and President Obama say investments in infrastructure can do nothing but help the economy. But Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, adequately summed up Republicans' skepticism: "There is a lot of rebranding going on over on the left. What used to be called 'raising taxes' is now called 'shared sacrifice.' And what used to be called government spending has now been dubbed 'investments.' "
For policymakers to actually choose among the options laid out by CBO, they have to get past the doubts about spending expressed by Republicans. Can they do it? Would it be easier if the money was designated entirely to the states? (CBO notes that 80 percent of federal highway money is allocated for state grants.) Does the highway trust fund system need a complete overhaul (or at least the appearance of it) to win over naysayers like Hatch? Should policymakers take a more serious look at a privately financed toll road system?