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Another Shutdown on the Horizon

August 11, 2011 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Conservative hardball in St. Paul and Washington has already forced furloughs of tens of thousands of workers and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aviation tax collections, most of which was sucked up by the airlines in opportunistically raised fares. And don't forget the conservatives' federal debt limit theater of the absurd, which led to a downgrading of U.S. obligations and an ongoing panic on Wall Street.

But conservatives aren't done making trouble to make a point. Next up: a threatened shutdown of federal highway and transit programs. It's one more self-inflicted disaster facing us if Capitol Hill brinksmanship persists beyond a Sept. 30 deadline for surface transportation reauthorization or extension.

This would be the mother of all public-sector failures—shutting down highway, bridge and transit work across the country, idling more than a million workers. And to what end? To press the conservative case for a U.S. House transportation bill estimated to erase more than 600,000 jobs in the construction industry for good and further speed the decline of our infrastructure, which has plunged in just five years from first to 23rd in the World Economic Forum's global economic competitiveness index.

For those keeping score at home, that's behind the United Arab Emirates, Iceland and Spain.

"Our long-term economic prospects will only get weaker the longer Congress allows our infrastructure to crumble," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a news release this week for Building America's Future, the tripartisan advocacy group he co-chairs with former Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. "As Congress stands idly by, our competitors around the world are racing ahead."

Conservative U.S. House Transportation Chairman John Mica of Florida has already engineered a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that knocked more than 20,000 airport construction workers off the job and cost the U.S. Treasury $400 million in airline ticket taxes. That little glitch was papered over this week with an agreement to disagree over rural airport subsidies and airline union organizing rules—and resume the argument next month.

Now Mica is turning his guns on congressional progressives who want to keep highway and transit work going at no less than current inadequate levels. The progressives are backed by a rare business-labor coalition of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, but Mica has Tea Party "patriots" salivating at the prospect of an end to federal fuel taxes, which would save the average driver a princely $8 a month.

Mica's bill wouldn't go quite that far; it would merely cut federal transportation spending by one-third, about $18 billion a year. Meanwhile, though, U.S. Senate conservatives have introduced legislation to abolish the federal gas tax and devolve all responsibility for transportation infrastructure to cash-starved state and local governments.

Right-wingers have learned that either of these aims can be achieved simply by stonewalling. The federal gas tax devoted mostly to roads and bridges, which was 18.4 cents a gallon upon its last hike in 1993, has been weakened in real terms to 11 cents now. Unlike practically every other tax—income, sales, property—per-gallon fuel levies don't automatically keep up with inflation. So continuous tax cutting on autopilot guts our transportation system's purchasing power. 

That alone should spell antitax nirvana. But why settle for a slow leak when you can slash all four tires at once? What's left of transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance will flat-line completely if Oct. 1 arrives without an agreement in Washington. And that means federally funded improvement projects on Interstate Hwy. 94 in the Twin Cities, I-35 north of Hinckley and U.S. Hwy. 14 in southern Minnesota, to name just a few, would probably be halted again, just weeks after nearly 100 of them resumed following the 20-day state shutdown in July.

Delays in federal transportation legislation have been common since conservatives packed it with record earmarks during the Bush years and then shamelessly campaigned against them as pork. The latest holdup has stretched on for nearly two years, leaving road planners across the country in the dark about what resources will be available for projects with long construction timelines.

So far at least, bipartisan wisdom has yielded seven temporary extensions enacted without drama. But the recent blithe sacrifices of jobs, dedicated revenue and investors' wealth on the altar of antigovernment radicalism bode ill for a transportation system that is vital to our nation's economy.

Maybe you thought the Minnesota government shutdown, the FAA shutdown and the trumped-up debt "crisis"—at a time when investors continued to pour money into low-interest Treasuries—were bad. If the same conservative tactics get applied to the nation's roads, bridges and transit, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

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