Ryan's Budget Cuts Fail to Fix Bankrupt Transportation Program

Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is full of the usual dogmatic drivel you hear in Washington – the thing is actually called “The Path to Prosperity,” if you can believe that. And given his approach to transportation funding – big cuts and no new revenue – that “path” will continue to be full of potholes and collapsing bridges, without a train in sight.

Ryan’s budget proposes cutting transportation funding by 31 percent in 2012, and stays in that range for the next ten years. High speed rail gets the axe, as do some really cost-effective, performance-based programs such as New Starts, a competitive grant program for rail and bus rapid transit projects. The contrast with the President’s vision for investment in a more competitive transportation system is stark, as you can see from this bar graph (Ryan would slash it by more than half).

Refusing to invest in our crumbling, outdated transportation infrastructure is downright scary. Our transportation system, as it stands, is a threat to public safety, national security and the environment. This budget puts America in the position of having to continue to neglect necessary repair work, remain addicted to oil, and add to global warming pollution.

Just to pick one of these threats, although all three are described in a new NRDC fact sheet, let’s look at our bridge repair backlog. Between 1989 and 2003 alone, 500 bridges failed and today more than 69,000 are structurally deficient. Before you hit the road tonight or tomorrow, you should check Transportation for America’s awesome new mapping tool to make sure you steer clear of dangerous bridges near you.

Ryan says the Highway Trust Fund has to operate based on its existing revenues, which last year totaled about $35 billion. Yet the cost of necessary bridge repair work alone is $80 billion. I agree there’s waste to be trimmed in the program, but simply slashing the budget won’t solve the fundamental issue: our federal transportation program is insolvent.

The insolvency of this program is contributing to our national debt. Congress has “borrowed” $35 billion of taxpayer money from the Treasury to prop up the program, and because it’s insolvent, this money will never be paid back.

It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but the hard truth is that our transportation program needs revenue. And that might mean (gasp!) raising the gas tax, which hasn’t been done since 1993, and it might mean (gasp!) cutting out some of the massive subsidies that Big Oil has been treated to over the last few decades. A lot of people don’t have the political guts to make this call, and Ryan, for all his tough talk, appears to be one of them.

It’s amazing that a deficit hawk like Ryan can ignore a recommendation supported by the Presidential Debt Commission, prominent Republicans and Democrats, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. These disparate groups all agree that our transportation program needs to grow if America’s going to prosper in the future. Is the solution really scarier than the problem itself?

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