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POINT OF VIEW: Highway bill about to expire

POINT OF VIEW: Highway bill about to expire

Keep an eye on funding

BY NEAL McCALEB
Published: September 28, 2009, Sunday Oklahoman

The buzz over investing in our nation’s ailing transportation infrastructure via the economic stimulus package has led to a reawakening that infrastructure is the backbone of the nation’s economy. It also has painted a picture of a seemingly high level of political fidelity to more adequately fund America’s roads and bridges.

However, when one looks at the current highway bill, which expires Wednesday, and the financial well-being of the Federal Highway Trust Fund, Congress’s rekindled love for roads is a rocky relationship at best.

In fact, the trust fund has gone broke twice in the last year, requiring multibillion-dollar infusions.

And Oklahoma is facing the possibility of losing $135 million over the next 18 months, because of a flawed $8.7 billion funding "rescission” scheduled in current federal highway law.

Here is how this flaw came about.

State departments of transportation are given authorization to spend money through the multiyear highway bill, currently SAFETEA-LU. Then in the annual transportation appropriations bill, DOTs are given the actual limit they can spend for that year, called obligation authority, which is always a lower amount.

The difference between the obligation authority and the apportionment remains on each DOT’s "books” and is referred to as an unobligated balance.

A rescission normally captures a portion of this — what should represent the state’s unspendable balance — and moves it back to the trust fund.

However, due to the declining nature of the trust fund, this year the rescission will extend beyond Oklahoma’s unspendable balance. The state will be forced to redirect regular federal aid dollars previously committed to its remaining federal fiscal year 2009 construction projects.

This flawed rescission is ultimately a result of one thing: the procrastination of Congress in reforming highway law to allow for alternative revenue sources to rescue the federal fuel tax, which will never again be sufficient to meet highway investment obligations.

We don’t lack solutions. We lack the political fortitude to act on them, because solutions involve using private capital, increased tolling, congestion pricing, bonds or assessing fees based on vehicle miles traveled.

For Oklahoma there are bright spots in this dismal picture. While Congress as a whole has lacked action on this issue, Oklahoma’s congressional delegation is solidly committed to finding a solution and have shown exemplary leadership in making transportation a priority and working across party lines to do what’s best for the state.

Additionally, the Legislature has championed increased investments over the last four years. Thanks to its efforts, state Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley reported earlier this month the largest increase in bridge work ever incorporated into the agency’s eight-year construction plan.

Those who care about the future of our state and nation should pay close attention to what Congress does to actually fund highway policy. For more information about this issue or other Oklahoma transportation initiatives, visit RestoreTRUST.org.

McCaleb, former state secretary of transportation, is president of the road and bridge advocacy coalition TRUST.

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