Road to Nowhere

The best place in the country to appreciate the marvels of our interstate highway system is heading west out of Denver on I-70 in Colorado. The road climbs and dips at a steep grade, taking cars across the Rockies, a range that includes some of North America’s tallest mountains. Fifty or so miles out of town, the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel, which takes travelers underneath the continental divide, marks the highest point in the entire interstate system, at 11,155 feet. Building the first of the memorial tunnel’s two bores, the one named after Eisenhower, cost more than $100 million, an extraordinary sum at the time.

The worst place in the country to appreciate anything at all about the country’s highways system right now is Capitol Hill. The transportation bill the House is working on contains a $260 billion budget. The funds are not for building highways but to maintain them. For years, a gas tax fed the Highway Trust Fund. But that tax has not been adjusted for inflation, and the fund is now going bankrupt. If ever there was a politically convenient time to raise taxes on gasoline, now is not it. Instead, House Republicans trying to keep money flowing into the account are resorting to ideas so ludicrous that even Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a climate-change skeptic and senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, dismissed one of them. Below are the most potentially lucrative proposals which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will still not be enough to dig the trust fund out of the hole after 2016.

More oil and gas drilling. The House bill would open up more areas to oil and gas drilling and direct the revenues from those leases into the Highway Trust Fund. Opening up leases doesn’t guarantee that reserves will be used, though. Even if they are, oil and gas projects take years to develop. By pretending to have that money now, the House bill essentially borrows from phantom future revenue. It’s this gamble that Senator Inhofe objects to: “You can’t very well use revenues you don’t have,” he said late last month.

Republicans also want to require new leases for oil-shale development. Oil shale closely resembles tar sands; the shale consists of sedimentary rock laced with rich bitumen. Converting oil-shale extract into usable fuel requires more energy and creates more carbon emissions.

The particular locations that the bill would exploit are also troubling, not only to Democrats. Some moderate Republicans object to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Florida Republicans are also rebelling against drilling off their state’s coast: The tourism industry wants that shoreline to stay pristine.

No guaranteed funding for mass transit. In its first iteration, the Highway Trust Fund provided only for constructing and maintaining highways. But in 1982, a portion of the funds started going to mass transit. The House bill would take away transit’s 20 percent share in the money flowing into the fund and replace it with a onetime infusion of $40 billion, meant to last five years, with no promises of a renewal.

The bill extracts its pound of flesh from the transit system in other ways, too. It opens up a clean-air program that’s been the provenance of transit to highway projects. It also leans on Amtrak, promising less funding and more hoops to jump through. Among the amendments that have been proposed to the bill are one that would cut funding to all Amtrak lines but the Acela and another that would cut out all funding to transit without any exceptions. Those amendments aren’t likely to pass, but they’re an indication of the disdain House Republicans feel for trains and buses.

Lower retirement benefits for federal employees. The last big trick the House bill uses to succor highway funding is cutting contributions to federal employees' retirement plans. There’s a slightly lower chance that Republicans will be able to rely on this idea, because the payroll tax deal used a similar funding gimmick. Although that deal originally would have cut contributions for all federal employees, it will only limit contributions to the plans of new employees or those on the job for fewer than five years. That compromise leaves plenty of federal employees who could be facing decreased benefits.

This bill was already supposed to have passed through the House, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Speaker John Boehner will be able to steer it through Congress without additional nips and tucks. The vote has been delayed until after next week’s recess.

Even if the bill does pass through the House, it faces political problems as seemingly insurmountable as sending a highway through the Rocky Mountains. The Senate’s transportation bill bears little resemblance to the House’s, and the White House has been making noises about vetoing any bill with provisions that open up ANWR or require approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. While it’s mildly encouraging that the country could avoid rubber-stamping some of House Republicans' ideas, the highway system desperately needs money to keep it intact. So does mass transit. Congress doesn’t need to bore a tunnel through the Rockies right now—it just needs to patch up the highways we have and keep the trains running on time.

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