At the end of the week, authorization for federal highway and transit programs expire. Many, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are urging lawmakers to find “common ground” and extend the programs. To be clear, any extension or reauthorization will simply perpetuate the status quo that has led to tens of billions in taxpayer bailouts of the federal Highway Trust Fund.
In a nod to the fiscal realities, the Chamber also urged Congress “to establish a road map for a long-term sustainable user-fee based revenue model.” What does sustainable funding mean when it comes to transportation? Well, three years ago – on the heels of President Obama’s stimulus – the Chamber launched a campaign to raise the federal gas tax to support a 40% increase in transportation funding.
With gas tax revenues dwindling thanks to high prices and more fuel-efficient cars, many in the transportation community are looking at other funding mechanisms, including a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax. As the name implies, a VMT would tax drivers based on the number of miles they drive, which would require government tracking and reporting.
A few months ago, during a question and answer session, the Chamber said it was “open to looking at those options,” but noted a rush to implement could “set back the question of VMT for years and years.” With major business groups keeping the door open to a VMT, you can be certain this week’s battle over transportation will not be the last.
Also set to expire at the end of the week are the Pelosi-era rates on federally subsidized student loans. Absent action from Congress, those rates will double from 3.4% to 6.8%. Sure, a doubling of rates sounds dramatic, but the real world impact is marginal. According to Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an extension of the lower rate would only lower monthly payments by an average of $7.
But while the impact on future students is minimal, the immediate cost to the Treasury is significant: $6 billion for a one year extension. Press reports suggest the congressional Republicans and Democrats are closing in on a deal to pay for the largess, but a gimmick-ridden pay for misses the larger point: the subsidies haven’t worked!