If you already understand federal funding for surface transportation, please excuse some simplification in the explanation below. But if you understand transportation funding, you also understand that is too complex for a simple blog post.
Each year I attend the National Bike Summit, a conference/lobbying trip in Washington, DC to talk about bicycling with our legislators. I'm not going to bore you to death with the minutiae of transportation funding or the federal process, if you want an overview of the current legislation, you can go here. But there are a few critical points to understanding what is going on.
1. The federal government generally passes a multi-year transportation bill so that states and local governments can plan for the big projects that are funded with this pot of money. If you are going to spend $1 billion on upgrading the SE Wisconsin freeway system - including the $810 million Marquette Interchange - you don't want to be guessing what the feds are going to do year to year.
2. The current 5-6 year bill expired a year ago, and to keep the money flowing the feds have passed a series of what are known as a continuing resolutions. These basically continue the same funding programs, at the same levels, for as long as these short-term pieces of legislation last, typically 3-6 months. When the bill expired last March, no one wanted to touch the bill before the mid-term elections, so they just kicked the can down the road. (Pun intended.)
Why didn't anyone want to deal with the transportation bill before the mid-term elections?
3. The not-so-secret secret is that there's just not enough money under the current system, and no one wants to change the system. For most surface transportation (not air) the funding comes from the Highway Trust Fund, i.e. the federal gas tax. And there just isn't enough money coming in to pay for all the programs - mostly roads - that the American public wants.
(And please spare me any talk that getting rid of "frills" like Safe Routes to School, bike and pedestrian programs, or CMAQ will solve this problem. Those programs are such a tiny sliver of all the federal funding that they can't even be seen on the pie chart. It's like trying to solve the federal budget deficit by getting rid of funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)
No elected official, right, left, center, or anywhere in between, wants to raise the gas tax. But the federal gas tax hasn't been changed for almost 20 years - since 1993. To make matters worse, the gas tax is based on volume, not a percentage of sales, that is, you are paying the same tax in April 2011, when gas is averaging $3.80/gal as you were in 1993, when gas was averaging $1.10/gal.
Cars are getting more fuel efficient, but people are driving way more than they were in 1993, and they are demanding bigger, smoother, faster roads, and those cost buckets, nay barges full of money. The gas tax at 18.4 cents/gal just isn't going to cut it. All those roads that we have been building for the last 55 years - since we started building the Interstate Highway System in 1956 and launched the car-based society - are falling apart. They need to be fixed, but at the same time we are all demanding that new roads be built, or current roads expanded.
There is simply no way that we can continue with this system unless the gas tax is raised. Many people, myself included, will argue that continuing to plan for a car-based system for personal travel is an insane idea for all sorts of reasons. But it has taken us decades to get into this mess, and it is not going to be solved overnight. We need a transition plan until we can build a transportation system that allows people to live their daily lives without getting in a car every day. Individuals, families, businesses, and communities are also going to have to make some changes to move away from a car-based transportation and planning mindset.
And it is going to cost money to build that system. So we need to raise the federal gas tax but also start looking at other sources of funding for mass transit, intercity rail, upgrades to freight rail, and multi-modal facilities.
Although no elected official wants to "raise taxes," because they are afraid it will stall the economy (or they won't get re-elected), we could raise the gas tax by a nickel a year for the next 10 years, and no one would notice it in the price they pay at the pump! Sure, the media would make sure everyone knows the tax is going up, but with the volatility in gas prices, the federal tax is a drop in the oil drum. Besides, gas taxes are user fees, and aren't conservatives usually all for making people pay for what they use?
So, raise the federal gas tax. Two cents a year for the next 10 years would keep things going the way they are. Five cents a year for the ten years might actually allow us to start building a transportation system with some choices for those that don't want to drive everywhere, and in addition provide a tiny disincentive to drive so much. Gas prices have jumped 20 cents in the last week, and 75 cents since January 1. Does anyone think people are going to notice a nickel a gallon?