Like most states, West Virginia faces a dilemma caused by bitter partisan gridlock in Congress. Highway construction projects could be halted and workers laid off if Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill don’t shore up the federal Highway Trust Fund before it runs dry in August.
Ever since America’s interstate highway system was launched in the 1950s, the fund has been sustained by a federal fuel tax — currently 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel. But more-efficient cars and less travel have crimped the flow of revenue that Washington shares with states. The fund is projected to go broke in August, which would force administrators to slash payments to states.
Like nearly everything else in Washington, this topic has become a political football. Previously, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was expected to induce Republicans to support a compromise cure — but Cantor’s defeat by a tea party extremist makes a solution “utterly impossible,” according to the chief of the Tire Industry Association.
“With the tea party flexing muscles,” Roy Littlefield said, “there is no way tea party-affiliated legislators will negotiate or vote for a bill. What they will fight for is highway and bridge privatization. When you own a road or bridge, you expect to get a return on your investment. ... You charge a toll, or you decrease maintenance.”
Littlefield said 6,300 bridges and 800 miles of U.S. highway already have been privatized.
President Obama wants to raise the gas tax to replenish the highway fund. In a speech beside a dilapidated Washington bridge, he sneered at the partisan stalemate that is blocking a solution. “I haven’t heard a good reason why they haven’t acted,” he said. “It’s not like they’ve been busy with other stuff. No, seriously. I mean they’re not doing anything. Why don’t they do this?”
In Congress, several various cures have been offered, but none is drawing much support. Republicans don’t want to cause another mess like past government shutdowns they forced in an attempt to wreck the Affordable Care Act. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is “taking all the sharp objects out of the room so we can’t hurt ourselves.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is a rare Republican who wants to raise the gasoline tax. He called some other proposed solutions “sophomoric.” We agree with his conclusion about the current failure to act:
“It’s totally ridiculous. It’s a dereliction of duty. And it’s all because there’s no will in this body to solve any problem that involves doing something of substance.”