One way or the other, Congress must plug a $20 billion hole in the Highway Trust Fund before it dries up.
The fund is the primary source of money for the nation’s major highway construction projects, including several in Ohio.
The Interstate 75 widening project, for example, has been approved and is to start this year. But construction could be delayed if the trust fund goes bankrupt in August, as some are predicting.
The fund has been kept afloat with the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal tax on gasoline, but construction expenses have been outpacing receipts as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and people drive less due to rising fuel prices. Lawmakers must find an extra $100 billion to cover federal highway costs over the next six years, in addition to the approximately $34 billion per year brought in by the gas tax.
The problem, while not new, is starting to get more attention. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is on an eight-state bus trip designed to rally public support for congressional action. Appropriately, the bus trip started in Ohio, which is counting on the trust fund for much of the $381 million Interstate 75 widening project.
There are options.
The easiest fix would be to increase the gas tax, which hasn’t been changed since 1993. Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Trucking Association, among others, support the idea, and House Democrats have introduced a bill to gradually increase it to 33 cents per gallon. But Republicans are opposed to raising the tax, and it appears it has little chance of passage, especially in an election year.
A sensible idea, but one which also lacks public support, would be to turn more federal highways like I-75 into toll roads. Tolls could then be used to revive the fund.
Another possibility would be to link the gas tax to inflation, something that wasn’t done when the tax was last increased 20 years ago. If it had been, the tax would be 29 cents per gallon for gas and 39 cents for diesel, enough to plug almost all of the shortfall in funding.
Some have suggested taxing drivers based on how far they drive. The distance-based system is controversial, though, because it calls for recording a driver’s mileage using transponders in their vehicles.
Meanwhile, some are calling for changing the source of the tax. The idea is by placing a tax on wholesale oil transactions instead of taxing drivers at the pump, more money could be taken in. But that idea, too, doesn’t appear to be gaining much traction.
The most likely scenario will be for lawmakers to transfer money from other areas of the federal budget, like they did in 2012 to make up for a shortage.
An administration proposal calls for using $150 billion from tax reform to help pay for a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill, while Republicans have suggested using $125 billion. Either could work as a stopgap, but a long-term fix seems in order considering the importance of the fund’s work. One in three federal roads are said to be in poor or mediocre condition. One in four bridges is said to be either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient.
Delaying needed construction projects further will only make our infrastructure weaker. Foxx is increasing awareness among Ohioans, who have much to lose if the fund does go belly up.
Election year or not, Congress must find a way to keep that from happening.