Our Opinion: Congress fiddles, our roads crumble


Congress is in crisis mode ... again. This time it's the Federal Highway Trust Fund. And once again, lack of agreement on how to address the problem at hand has led to paralysis in Washington, D.C.

The highway fund is expected to become insolvent by the end of August, according to the Department of Transportation. Congress is working toward a 10-month fix to temporarily shore up the fund, but the short-term fix has turned into a battle involving party infighting on both sides, over both the duration of the patch and how to fund it, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The White House has expressed support for a GOP bill by Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican. The bill would keep the fund solvent through May 2015 via $10.8 billion from pension tax changes, customs fees, and taking money from a fund to repair leaking underground storage fuel tanks.

Some Senate Democrats are furious that their party colleagues are going along with the 10-month patch, arguing that extending funding through May 2015 will simply move the issue into a period when it could get tied up in a battle over the U.S. borrowing limit.

Republicans, meanwhile, are upset that the funding mechanism for the patch involves measures unrelated to highway spending. The highway fund gets most of its money from federal taxes on gasoline and diesel, which haven't increased since 1993 and weren't indexed for inflation. That means revenue hasn't kept up with rising material costs. Declines in the amount that Americans drive and the amount of fuel they consume exacerbate the trend, the Journal notes.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., last month teamed up with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to call for boosting the tax by 12 cents a gallon over the next two years and tying the tax to annual inflation increases. That triggered an immediate backlash, with a fellow Tennessee Republican, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, saying he would oppose any tax increases and that the government needed to do a better job setting priorities.

Unfortunately, while Congress continues to fight, fidget and fiddle, our roads continue to crumble. A new report from TRIP, a national transportation research group, shows just how serious the situation is, especially for a rural state like Vermont.

The report, "Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America's Heartland," finds that the nation's rural transportation system, which is critical to the nation's booming agriculture, energy and tourism sectors, is in need of modernization to address deficient roads and bridges, high crash rates and inadequate connectivity and capacity.

As much as 21 percent of Vermont's major rural roads were rated in poor condition, the 15th highest rate in the nation. In 2013, 10 percent of Vermont's rural bridges were rated as structurally deficient. The traffic fatality rate on Vermont's rural roads was 1.35 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, nearly double the fatality rate of 0.70 fatalities on all other roads in the state.

"More than 46 million Americans live in rural and less densely populated areas of the country where their primary mode of transportation is a personal vehicle," Kathleen Bower, AAA vice president of public affairs, said in a statement. "Congress must act quickly to provide a sustainable solution for the federal Highway Trust Fund to ensure that states can continue to make necessary infrastructure investments that will benefit all travelers."

The report also finds that the development of major new oil and gas fields in numerous areas as well as increased agricultural production are placing significantly increased traffic loads by large trucks on non-Interstate rural roads, which often have not been constructed to carry such high load volumes. We need look no further than Route 9 in West Brattleboro for evidence of that.

The report notes that the average travel per-lane mile by large trucks on major, non-arterial rural roads in the U.S. has increased by 16 percent from 2000 to 2012.

"America's rural transportation system is an integral component to the success and quality of life for U.S. farmers and ranchers," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Adequate roads and bridges are necessary to deliver our agricultural bounty to markets at home and abroad. As we see additional growth and opportunities in rural America, we must work together to take advantage of those opportunities and to ensure that infrastructure supports and enhances our rural communities."

The TRIP report says the U.S. needs to adopt transportation policies that will improve rural transportation connectivity, safety and conditions. Recommendations include modernizing and extending key routes to accommodate personal and commercial travel, implementing needed roadway safety improvements, improving public transit access to rural areas, and adequately funding the preservation and maintenance of rural transportation assets.

"The nation's rural roads provide crucial links from farm to market, move manufactured and energy products, and provide access to countless tourist and recreational destinations," said Will Wilkins, executive director of TRIP. "But, with long-term federal transportation legislation stuck in political gridlock in Washington, America's rural communities and economies could face even higher unemployment and decline."

The last thing we need here in Windham County is another roadblock to economic development and opportunity. We urge our congressional delegation to work with their colleagues in Washington, D.C., to shore up the highway fund and create a long-term vision and funding mechanism for our transportation needs that will carry us well into the future.


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