A bump at the pump might be worth more than failing roads. The Highway Trust Fund, which provides most of the funding for federal transportation projects on interstate highways, is expected to run dry this September. Most of the trust fund’s revenues are from the federal gasoline tax, which has diminished substantially in value since its last increase in 1993 as a result of inflation and increasing fuel efficiency.
A bipartisan Senate bill, proposed last week, would restore the fund’s solvency by raising the tax by 12 cents over the next two years and indexing the tax with inflation. Like many good ideas from Congress, its chances of success are slim. The measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, would raise $164 billion for the fund and avoid a nightmarish scenario where existing projects would stop and badly needed new projects be suspended if the trust fund were to run out of money.
To assuage Republican senators who have signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, Sens. Corker and Murphy have proposed the extension of tax relief measures that they say will keep the bill revenue-neutral. It’s a concession to how dire things have become in Congress, but one that is better than other proposals to fund the highway system by eliminating Saturday postal service or offering a one-time tax “holiday” on repatriated corporate profits.
The Highway Trust Fund has required infusions of cash from the U.S. Treasury to remain afloat. Instead of stopgap measures and gimmicks, basic infrastructure spending should be covered permanently by a sensible and updated tax code. For the sake of a safe and functional federal highway system, the tax will need to rise.