Last week was a high-drama in Washington as lawmakers ticked down to the final days before the federal highway authority was set to expire. They extended it. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Congress went home for two weeks.
They still haven't answered the $300 billion question: How do you pay for a long-term reauthorization of the surface transportation program? Isn't it ironic that the parts of the bill that the congressional transportation czars have the least control over are also the ones causing the most problems? House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Md., actually aren't too far apart on some of the wonkier aspects of their highway bill proposals. They both agree on streamlining federal programs, for example, and on speeding up project financing.
How to pay for highway legislation is a decision well above Boxer and Mica's pay grades. It is a question for House and Senate leaders to hammer out. (Or, in the case of last week, to put off until later.) And let's be clear. The House and Senate leaders don't care about a highway bill nearly as much as Boxer and Mica. They certainly aren't going to spend the same time and effort that went into writing the policy proposals coming up with an accompanying revenue plan.
Where does this leave us? We have a policy without a pay-for. Have the revenues used to finance highways always been disassociated with the policy? How can the money and the policy be more closely matched? Are "user fees" like the gas tax the only way to link money and surface transportation? Should the transportation experts be more involved in the money-raising side of the debate, or vice versa?