Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Log In

What The Debt Ceiling Vote Means For Transportation

4:24 PM EDT on June 1, 2011

Yesterday, the House of Representatives took a “symbolic” vote on raising the debt ceiling without any “strings attached” – i.e., the trillion dollars worth of spending cuts the Republicans are insisting on before they’ll agree to raise the debt ceiling.

The vote went how it was supposed to go: not a single Republican voted for the bill, and Democrats split almost down the middle on it.

It makes perfect sense for Congress to ask for some guarantee of future fiscal discipline when they’re being asked to allow the U.S. to go deeper into debt. Interest alone on that debt cost $414 billion last year. But the spending cuts the Republicans are demanding could be far more painful than the last round.

Rep. Paul Ryan, Vice President Joe Biden and other big figures in the debt ceiling debate aren’t talking a lot about transportation, but that doesn’t mean the sector doesn’t have a significant stake in the outcome. Transportation will be dramatically affected both by the debt ceiling itself and the strings-attached spending cuts.

First, the Debt Ceiling

Everyone pretty much agrees that the debt ceiling needs to be lifted. If it’s not, the U.S. will default on its debts and worldwide financial pandemonium will ensue. But does it make sense to keep deficit spending, particularly on transportation?

That’s what we’ve been doing, after all. As the Highway Trust Fund balance drops, the U.S. keeps spending more on transportation than it brings in. As Streetsblog has been saying throughout the reauthorization debate, we can either raise new revenue (most likely by raising the gas tax), we can lower spending to levels that would starve our transportation agencies, or we can take money from the already-stretched general fund.

In order to keep repairing our bridges and running transit services, Congress has given the Highway Trust Fund a series of infusions from the general fund – basically, deficit spending. That can’t continue if we don’t raise the debt ceiling.

Of course, we don’t want it to continue. Transportation agencies should be more accountable for the money they spend and should have to prove that the projects they fund are achieving the goals that were established. That’ll help. But we’ll still need to spend more for transportation than we have right now.

The long-term solution, as we’ve often said, is raising the gas tax or shifting to different revenue streams. By refusing to raise the debt ceiling and cutting off all future deficit spending, Congress can force the issue of raising revenue by eliminating the possibility of general fund transfers. There would be no choice but to raise transportation revenues or cut transportation spending. Even without that dramatic backdrop, the House has indicated its preference: it's flat-out refused to either raise revenue or borrow from the general fund to pay for the new transportation bill, preferring instead to reduce spending to dangerously low levels.

Next: Spending cuts

House Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s proposed 2012 budget calls for cutting the transportation budget by about a third. That budget is the GOP’s starting point for the delicate negotiations ongoing between the two parties in an attempt to come to some kind of compromise on spending cuts that will convince Republicans (and those 82 holdout Democrats) to vote to raise the debt ceiling. In other words, transportation policies could become bargaining chips in the larger battle over the debt ceiling.

Ryan’s budget didn’t have a lot of details in it about exactly what would be axed from the transportation budget. We can imagine some of the more vulnerable and controversial projects would be on the list, including livability programs, TIGER, and all those “hitchhikers” onto a Highway Trust Fund Republicans maintain should be just for highways – hitchhikers like transit and bicycle infrastructure.

Last night’s vote was just the Republicans’ way of setting the stage for the fight over spending cuts, a way of proving that a debt ceiling raise without spending cuts is a non-starter. Once the theatrics are over, we’ll be watching to see what concrete actions the bipartisan negotiators come up with.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

Tuesday’s Headlines Triple the Fun

Amtrak is staffing up and ready to spend the $66 billion it received from the bipartisan federal infrastructure law.

September 26, 2023

Pols: Congress Must Bolster Sustainable Commutes to Reduce Carbon and Congestion

The feds should bolster sustainable commuting modes and transportation demand management strategies.

September 26, 2023

Monday’s Headlines Are All About Pete

From trying to avert a government shutdown to promoting rail safety, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is in the midst of a busy week.

September 25, 2023

What is the Life of a Dead Pedestrian Worth?

A Seattle police officer sparked outrage when he joked that the death of pedestrian Jaahnavi Kandula might be settled for as little as $11,000. Some families get even less.

September 25, 2023

Why Reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled Matters

“Our job now is to prioritize solutions that mitigate the impacts of climate change while equitably improving quality of life. To do so we need to rethink how we build so Californians can drive less."

September 22, 2023
See all posts