• Before breaking for summer recess in August, Congress saved the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) from going broke but didn’t resolve the fundamental issue: reauthorizing Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), the multiyear surface transportation legislation that expired at the end of September 2014.

    With the next presidential campaign already underway, it’s beginning to look like that won’t happen until 2017 – if then. The likelihood of infrastructure in general, and transportation in particular, becoming a hot topic in the 2016 election is unlikely.

    Upon reconvening after Labor Day, Congress returns to the same old stalemate: whether or not to raise the federal fuel tax for the first time since 1993.

    The Senate has passed a six-year extension of MAP-21But the legislation provides funding for only three years, doing little to no good for long-term road and bridge projects across the nation. That bill is in the House, where it’s expected to face opposition.

    In the meantime, the HTF is funded through Oct. 29 thanks to a $167 billion transfer from the Treasury Department.

    “It sounds like the House is pretty serious about trying to move something,” says Beth Donovan, policy adviser for Transportation For America an alliance of elected, business, and civic leaders that builds grassroots support for greater investment in public transportation, smart growth, and environmentalism. “How easy or hard that is will be interesting to watch.”

    Donovan says the House has two options:

    Pass a bill that raises the federal fuel tax, which Jeffery Sacks of Politico says should be raised by 35 cents to 53 cents/gallon for gasoline and to 59.4 cents/gallon for diesel. Such a proposal is likely to receive support from Republicans but not Democrats.

  • Pass a bill without funding formula changes, a non-controversial option that would likely pass easily but wouldn’t address chronic HTF underfunding.

“We’ve reached the end of the easy, noncontroversial, and gimmicky payfors,” says Donovan. “This is the easiest vote left.” She says many government and business leaders now support raising the tax.

Advocacy groups such as the American Public Works Association are cautiously optimistic that a long-term funding bill will pass before the election.

“If we get past 2015 and go into 2016 with another extension, I doubt that we’ll get a long-term bill next year,” says Government Affairs Director Andrea Eales. This means that if MAP-21 isn’t reauthorized by the end of this year, it probably won’t be until after a new president takes office in 2017.

“We don’t talk about what our transportation system should look like,” says Donovan. “Right now this debate’s over how much money we should pour into states for transportation agencies. That’s very important, but not the lofty vision for the country’s future that tends to inspire taxpayers.

“I’d rather focus on what the money would buy rather than the need for money. We haven’t seen that debate in a long, long time.”

When Congress returns, the House has until Oct. 29 to reauthorize MAP-21. Most likely, it will pass another short-term reauthorization that will fund the HTF until December, at which time we’ll return to the same old debate.