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In Congress, Road To Funding Highways Jammed

Florida State Archives

  The federal pot of money preserving local roads and bridges may soon be empty, yet lawmakers on Capitol Hill are miles apart on a solution. Not only local infrastructure but the overall economy is sure to feel the impact.

While increasingly fuel-efficient cars and trucks are easier on the wallet and the environment, they may prove terrible for the asphalt and steel beams on which they ride. Consuming less gas means fewer gas taxes. The federal Highway Trust Fund relies on an 18 cent gas tax on every gallon of regular. For diesel fuel that tax is 24 cents per gallon.

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) says the numbers are not adding up to maintain American infrastructure. He says, “As cars are becoming more efficient – and as there are, you know, plans to make them more and more efficient – theoretically per car there will be less fuel used. So it’s really going down. Not only has it not been raised, but as it becomes more efficient, less fuel is being used for – you know, per each mile.”

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has told states that communities will start feeling the financial pinch as early as August 1.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) says that pinch will be especially painful for South Florida because many expansive construction projects will grind to a halt if Congress does not send more money soon. He says, “The turnpike, I-95 – there may be money already expended, but there are projects that are dependent upon going forward rather than stopping.”

Rep. Hastings is open to many of the options floating around to shore up the Highway Trust Fund. At the top of his list is raising the gas tax. He says if the solution “requires a 2 cents or a 3 cents gas tax [increase], then we should do that. But we certainly shouldn’t let it expire.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) calls a potential hike “destructive” and “detrimental.” He says, “I don’t think raising taxes is an alternative. I just don’t think it’s an alternative at all.”

House Republican leadership has proposed ending Saturday mail to plug the budgetary hole. And even across the aisle GOP leaders have allies who would agree to that bandage.

While Rep. Diaz-Balart does not like the option, calling it a “patch,” he prefers it to a tax increase. He says, “The problem is we have to come up with a long-term solution.”

But according to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) Republican Party leaders have more recently distanced themselves from a temporary fix that would cut Postal Service delivery. “That’s been put on the back burner,” she says.

Rank-and-file House Republicans, she says, will not stand for one costly “patch” that would include measures unrelated to roads and bridges. She says, “I think that that bill, were it to come to the floor, will have to be completely revamped. The message from our GOP conference is: less spending, reduce bills, none of these big packages. It’s got to get done, but the parts that have to get done, let’s just do that and stop this other stuff.”

This Congress, though – with Republicans controlling the House, and Democrats wielding the Senate’s gavels – continues to fall short on long-term solutions.

Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) says an anti-government mantra by House Republicans is going to mean real-life problems should the trust fund run out of money. That mantra, he says, “stops development, it stops construction, it stops the ability to grow our neighborhoods because they’re not going to meet the infrastructure demands or the ability that they have to be able to grow these neighborhoods. So this is – this could be a very crippling blow to our construction industry, which is our biggest employer in South Florida.”

Meanwhile, pressure mounts. Both parties know how bad things could it get if the Highway Trust Fund goes bust, but neither side is willing to give in yet. For transportation officials struggling to jump-start South Florida’s construction industry in the wake of the Great Recession, the gridlock is a high-stakes game of chicken.

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