The Highway Trust Fund, which provides the dollars needed for federal highway, transit and rail projects, has reported a negative cash flow since the year 2000.
Fed mostly by gasoline taxes at the pump, the fund has seen its value decline due to more fuel-efficient cars, wider use of public transit and reduced buying power. As essential transportation projects continue to tap into a dwindling pool of resources, legislators have been unable to address the fund’s shortfall.
Fourteen years of off-and-on debate have not been enough to compel Congress to take the obvious necessary action: boosting the gasoline tax. At 18.4 cents per gallon, the tax has not been raised since 1993.
This year the fund is expected to collect $33 billion in revenue, far less than the $45 billion needed to support the next round of construction and repairs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected that the fund would be drained by next month, causing highway and transit projects to grind to a halt.
Yet even last week, Congress was incapable of doing the right thing. Rather than raise an outdated tax, which would have established a dependable source of funding into the future, the Senate went along with a House-passed bill that kicked the can down the road. The plan would make corporate tax changes and use higher customs fees to help generate $10.9 billion for the fund through May.
While this Band-Aid approach will keep projects and jobs on track for nine months, the funding issue will have to be revisited in the spring. By then we hope that lawmakers will find the backbone to approve a real solution: raising the gas tax.