Our View: Getting detoured on our way to a smart road fix

July 17, 2014 

If we found this even remotely humorous, we’d mention the “bumpy road” the House of Representatives took to finally reach a deal to allow roadwork to continue this summer. But no one is laughing about a fix that should have been passed months ago. No one is applauding a compromise that gave more money to corporate citizens by allowing them to reduce payments to their pension funds so they’ll have more short-term profit, then counting on the taxes on that extra profit to fix the roads.

We echo others in calling this convoluted compromise a scam.

There were other options. Congress could have raised the gas tax a penny or two. Or it could have passed a bill to outlaw the latest corporate tax dodge of merging with small overseas companies then “relocating” their headquarters to avoid paying taxes on overseas profits. Such a bill would have created far more revenue and made far more sense, since many of the companies rely on passable roads to move their goods to American customers. But no, we got something that could create even more problems when a few of those pension funds run out of cash.

Worse yet, the Highway Trust Fund remains broken. This latest temporary fix lasts only 10 months. Then we’ll have to find another solution.

Blame us for becoming more efficient. Our cars and trucks use less gas than they did in 1993, the last time the per-gallon highway tax was adjusted. That means less tax revenue. But a tax based on gas used by cars in 1993 is outdated. Since most people are driving those fuel-efficient cars, they’re spending spend less on gas. That means all of us can afford an extra penny or two per gallon to fix our roads.

The Highway Trust Fund generated $50 billion in 2013, but interstate upkeep alone is $27 billion. What’s left is a drop in the bucket compared to the $125 billion in serious repair projects out there. And if we want to actually improve roads, that’s another $85 billion (minimum), according to the Department of Transportation.

As much fault as we find with this legislation, it was better than passing nothing and having road projects come to a screeching halt. The vote was 367-55, as most Republicans ignored their intransigent wing to pass the bill. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, voted aye; Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents much of the Mother Lode, voted nay.

McClintock notes the Highway Trust Fund is supposed to be a user-pay system; the more you drive, the more gas you use, the more taxes you pay. But his real objection was in how we’re paying for this quick fix.

The legislation “uses 10 years of savings projected from ‘pension smoothing’ to prop up the fund this year ($6.4 billion) and extends the customs user fee by one year in 2023 to claim savings in 2014 ($3.5 billion). Both are illusory,” he said.

We agree, but we would have greater appreciation for his position if he had helped find a workable solution six months ago. But that’s asking too much of this bunch; they’d rather bicker.

The Obama administration has urged more public-private partnerships and toll roads – an idea that’s almost as bad as pension smoothing. Tolls cost poor people proportionately more of their earnings and traditionally have been anathema to Californians.

Forward-thinking lawmakers, assuming they’re willing to speak to each other, need to find ways to fix crumbling roads. Swiping $10 billion from supposed pension savings is not the way to fill the nation’s potholes.

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