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Tight Budget Times Not Friendly to Legislation

Next year, Congress is slated to chart a renewed course for our transportation system by reauthorizing the highway bill, legislation that encompasses mass transit and all forms of surface transportation infrastructure.

But, as 2009 approaches, several roadblocks may stand in our path to passing that important bill. Greatest among them is likely to be the imbalance of our federal budget.

Operating in these tight budgetary times means that decisions to spend in one area will require cuts in spending elsewhere, or increased revenues, or both, and all of the options are tough to achieve. Unfortunately, as things stand today, our past failure to make transportation investments a higher priority has made it exceedingly difficult to provide the level of funding sufficient to maintain our transportation system, let alone to expand it.

As our nation’s surface transportation needs continue to grow, the primary source of funding for such construction, the Highway Trust Fund, is about to go from surplus to deficit. The trust fund takes in about $40 billion a year, mostly from the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and the 24.3-cents-a-gallon diesel tax.

High gas prices and a slowing economy have discouraged consumption, meaning less money coming into the trust fund from the gas tax. Meanwhile, thanks to rising commodity prices and a weakening dollar, money coming into the fund does not reach as far as it once did.

Complicating matters, on top of the federal funding crunch, states are watching their budgets shrink and are having a hard time coming up with maintenance monies and matching funds to draw down needed federal transportation dollars.

Meanwhile, our roads, rails, bridges and highways are overused and outdated — a potentially fatal combination that wastes precious time and money and puts lives at stake. The collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis last August was a wake-up call to this tenuous state of affairs.

There are a number of possible options to supplement the Highway Trust Fund. Among those being tossed around are tax credit bonds, infrastructure banks, toll roads, user fees and public-private partnerships. All of these options will be fully considered during the highway bill debate. We must be intellectually honest with ourselves and be mindful that whatever paths are chosen, you can be sure there will be some pain involved. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Fortunately, however, investing in transportation is one of the wisest moves we can make, guaranteed to help improve the safety and well-being of Americans. With the economy slowing down and job losses accelerating, the 2009 highway bill is a perfect opportunity to stimulate our economy and ensure long-term growth.

Every $1 billion invested in American infrastructure creates and supports 35,000 jobs — putting Americans to work on American roads and rails. Many states, such as my home state of West Virginia, have placed multiple miles of highway and other infrastructure projects on their back burners just waiting to get the money to move ahead. By investing in these projects, we can put people to work, repair our communities and rebuild our economy.

So, as we look ahead to consideration of the next highway bill and are confronted with the question of how we can afford to fund our transportation needs, we must ask ourselves, instead, how can we afford not to?

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and vice chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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