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December 09, 2016
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Time to fix our roads and highways

Locally, Damascus Township, one of the 10 largest municipalities in Pennsylvania with more than 90 miles of roads, already has received an earlier-than-anticipated infusion of $30,000 from the state’s gas-tax hike. This is very welcome, according to Supervisor Jeff Dexter, after years of decreasing state highway aid to municipalities, a period during which the state put the money in its own pocket. After a decade of “doing less with less,” Dexter said, “This will help stop the bleeding, but we still have a long way to go.” He’s also looking forward to a bump up in state funds for the Dirt and Gravel Roads Program, which had not seen an increase in decades. “I think we have some 30 odd miles of roads eligible for this grant, and now the county is looking to receive substantially more [funds]. It would be a tremendous help if we could do two to three miles [of roads] every year.” This summer, the township will complete one mile of River Road.

Meantime, in Washington, DC, there seems to be far less optimism about funding infrastructure. The federal gasoline tax has not been raised since 1993 and is still 18.4 cents a gallon, which brings us to the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF), the funding mechanism that pays for much of the nation’s roadwork. It pays approximately 45% of what the states spend on roads and bridges, and it is currently projected to run out of money at the end of August (and the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, which sets federal highway funding, expires altogether on October 1). Whether the two parties in Congress have the will to work together in an election year, remains to be seen.

Recently, transportation secretary Anthony Foxx warned that 700,000 jobs could be lost if Congress lets the trust fund run dry.

Congress has several options: It can take no action, causing more than 100,000 highway and bridge projects to be put on hold; it can transfer the tax burden to the states; or Congress could agree to a massive transfer of money from general tax revenues, something it has had to do in the past.

Some on Capitol Hill would prefer to see longer-term solutions. Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted (with bipartisan support) to advance a new six-year transportation bill that would spend about $53 billion a year, a figure the ASCE calls regrettably inadequate to address the investment gap. It is not clear if or when the Senate will consider the bill. Meantime, the Obama administration has proposed a four-year transportation bill calling for more than $85 billion a year, but has declined to endorse raising the gas tax.