Congressional staffers and finance experts said Thursday that the outlook for highway funding is more uncertain than ever, while two transport-oriented lawmakers vowed to work across the aisle to make sure state and local officials have federal support.
The uncertainty is due to the increasingly partisan atmosphere surrounding what was once a relatively nonpartisan issue, said attendees at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Washington Briefing. In addition there is always the political brinkmanship and fundamental uncertainty that goes along with long-term projections of enormous sums of money, the said.
Sarah Puro, an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, said the CBO currently projects that the federal Highway Trust Fund will only be able to meet its obligations through fiscal year 2014 without additional funding. The HTF is funded primarily through federal taxes on gas and diesel fuel, but the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century [Map-21] transportation law enacted last year shored it up with transfers from the general fund as well as the federal leaking underground storage tank fund. Rating agencies have already downgraded some bonds backed by those revenues, citing the uncertainty of the trust fund's future.
Puro said the HTF will likely finish fiscal 2013 with about $33 billion in new revenue, but about $43 billion in expenditures, On top of that, she told the state transportation leaders in the audience, the amount of money that federal laws have already provided for transportation outstrips the actual money coming into the trust fund by three or more times.
"This is like your credit card bill being equal to three or four years of your salary," she said.
Puro also told the assembled stakeholders that although her office can provide the best estimates possible given the available data, projections of what the funding situation will look like years down the line are not necessarily accurate.
"When you're talking about a $50 billion or $60 billion budget, the odds that we are wrong are pretty much 100%," said Puro.
Rachel Milberg, a staffer for the Senate Appropriations Committee's transportation subcommittee, said transportation funding's continuing uncertainty partly stems from an increased willingness of politicians to govern by crisis. The sequester, which on Thursday appeared all but certain to take effect on Friday as scheduled, was a case in point.
"The outlook is murky," Milberg said. "It's never been murkier."
Milberg said it was not long ago that members of Congress would rail against the use of gigantic omnibus funding bills and temporary continuing resolutions as funding measures, but there was still an expectation that a full funding measure would always pass by the deadline.
"We now have seen a level of brinkmanship, and a willingness to shut things down," she said.
With another possible U.S. government shutdown looming on March 27, Milberg said it's possible another continuing resolution to keep the government operating might not honor Map-21 funding levels. The last time a continuing resolution was passed last year, highway funds were not beefed up to match the levels provided for in Map-21.
When House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., took to the podium a bit later, he vowed to keep all funding options on the table and to reach across the aisle to restore the reliability of transportation funding. He told attendees that his committee will first tackle a water resources bill, a Senate draft of which contains a pilot federal loan program similar to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. After that he will begin working more seriously on finding a long-term solution for highways, and is already talking to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
"I believe we are at a tipping point," he said. "I'm reaching across the aisle to my democratic colleagues to try to rebuild bipartisanship."
Boxer told the state leaders to lend their voices to Capitol Hill.
"We need your help." she told them. "This is such a huge challenge that we face, and it's a challenge that we have to solve."