In my 20 plus years of service in Congress, this is the most unusual budget request for the Federal Highway Administration I have reviewed. What is unusual is not the amount requested, although significant, nor is it that it overstates the need; some may argue it is not enough. What is unusual is that it ignores the fact that there is no money to fund it. Because the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is all but insolvent, we cannot proceed with a bill unless we have a serious discussion about where the money is coming from. Unfortunately, the President's budget chooses to ignore that.
The budget includes $70.4 billion for highways in 2012, which represents a 71% increase above the current funding of $41 billion. $27.7 billion of this request is considered a one-time frontloading of the bill ($50 billion spread across all modes of transportation). Funding drops down to $47.4 billion in 2013 then grows from there.
While it is good to see an increased interest in our nation's roads and bridges, the truth is that the funding levels requested in this budget and in the reauthorization proposal are reckless when one considers we have a national debt of over $14 trillion. The President's failure to specify how he would pay for his $556 billion proposal makes me wonder how seriously he wants Congress to consider it. Instead of punting and including a placeholder tax increase of $231 billion over 6 years ($435 billion over 10 years), I think it would have been more useful to provide suggestions on how to achieve his goal along with legislative language that lays out the specifics of his proposal. This is an enormous amount of money to simply assume can be raised. To put it in perspective, it would mean more than doubling the gas and diesel taxes. That is a staggering hole.
The whole purpose of a budget is to make tough choices. This budget proposal does neither. It doubles spending, but does not pay for it. This is irresponsible-especially given the fact that this year's budget deficit will be over $1.6 trillion dollars. Putting aside the lack of attention to the funding shortfalls, from what I am able to tell about the reauthorization proposal, there are some good ideas that I wish we had more information on.
The proposed elimination of 55 programs within the overall Federal-aid Highway Program is a much-needed and appreciated move. These programs are replaced with greater flexibility, allowing states and localities to better address their individual and unique needs. This consolidation is politically difficult to do, and we in Congress will have to follow your example of leadership on this.
Summary documents indicate your proposal moves the program from being focused on bureaucratic processes to focusing on outcomes and ensuring our motorists' tax dollars are well spent. This is obviously a major change, but one that is needed.
The President's budget also proposes rebasing spending from the Highway Trust Fund as 100% mandatory. Currently, it is accounted for as both mandatory and discretionary. Rebasing the program to the mandatory side of the budget would provide a great deal of added certainty to state DOTs and contractors. This certainty would increase the likelihood that large, multi-year projects would make it off the drawing board and actually get built.
In addition to a lack of a funding mechanism, I'm concerned about another aspect of your reauthorization proposal. It's not a surprise by any means, but the budget proposes a new livability program funded at $4.1 billion in 2012 going up to $5.1 billion by the end of the bill (in 2017). To put this in perspective, this is almost 10 percent of the total program and over 60 percent larger than the dedicated safety program. This is far too much of the program to spend on things that have little or no impact on Americans' mobility.
I can honestly say that I'm very interested to see the policies you have included in your reauthorization proposal. The budget request reflects this to some degree, but my enthusiasm is overshadowed by the lack of a funding proposal.