Cumberland Times-News

Columns

July 16, 2014

Stopgap

Congress puts patch on highway trust fund blowout

— Kicking the can down the road was one of the things American kids did to pass the time in the old days, particularly if they lived in rural areas where there was little traffic to contend with.

That was before the advent of television, video games and other activities that allow modern kids to be active without really being active.

Kicking the can down the road is now an activity favored by some adults — in this case, members of Congress — because it allows them to be active without really being active.

Congress has developed an alarming habit of kicking the can down the road ... that is, applying temporary fixes to what have become permanent problems.

That’s why we have federal government shutdowns, sequesters and so forth.

The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to keep the federal Highway Trust Fund from running dry by redirecting $10.8 billion in pension tax changes, customs fees and money from a fund used to repair leaky underground fuel storage tanks. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

Otherwise, the highway fund would run out of money next month. The federal government, which is already more than $17.5 trillion in debt, would be unable to give states the money they were promised.

This has been going on since 2008.

One reason the fund is coming up short is that for years, Congress tapped into it for other purposes. What once was a surplus in the trust fund also was used to camouflage the yearly federal budget deficit — a practice referred to as “using smoke and mirrors.”

The nation’s roads, bridges and other highway infrastructures have collectively deteriorated to an alarming extent because either the money hasn’t been available to maintain them, or there was a lack of legislative will to spend it for that purpose.

The problem is particularly bad in Western Maryland, where a severe cutback has developed in the road funding provided by the state to counties and municipalities.

It has been proposed to replenish the highway fund by raising the federal per-gallon tax by 18.4 cents on gasoline and 24.4 cents on diesel. These taxes haven’t been raised in more than 20 years.

However, the cost of fuel is already ruinous, and those in Congress are aware that tacking even more onto the bill would likely result in their being subjected to carnage on election day. It also might wreak havoc upon an already fragile economy. What to do? Nobody really knows.

“Kicking the can down the road” is an appropriate cliche to apply to this predicament.

So is “The chickens are coming home to roost.”

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