Gazette opinion: Politics leave Highway Trust Fund running on empty

2014-07-31T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Politics leave Highway Trust Fund running on empty The Billings Gazette
July 31, 2014 12:00 am

The highways America needs can’t be built in five months. Major projects may take years of planning and multiple years for construction.

But five months is the duration of funding the U.S. Senate proposed in a bill approved Tuesday. The House bill isn’t any better: funding till May and “paid for” by allowing companies to short their employee pension fund contributions, so they would be expected to have higher taxable income and that tax would fund road building for the next 10 months.

This is no way to maintain the vital transportation system that must move people and goods across this great nation.

Montana’s economy is closely linked to the Highway Trust Fund. As U.S. Sen. Jon Tester pointed out in a recent op-ed: “For every $1 we put into federal coffers, we get around $2.50 in return. That money gets funneled to projects across our state, creating jobs and helping farmers haul their grain to market and mill owners take their lumber to outlets.”

Short-term patches

A month ago, a Gazette opinion called on Congress to fix the trust fund by modestly increasing the federal fuel tax that has not been increased in 20 years — before leaving on the five-week August-through Labor Day vacation.

Congress is scheduled to adjourn this week. No long-term solution for the nearly empty trust fund is on the table. The House and Senate have proposed short-term patches. House Speaker John Boehner rejected the Senate bill as soon as it was passed.

The Senate bill would “pay for” highway funding through Dec. 19 by making it harder for people to claim income tax deductions and credits they don’t qualify for, according to the Associated Press. Like the House bill, the Senate would rely on projected future revenue to cover current spending.

That’s not a long-term solution. It’s not even a solution that allows state transportation departments to schedule their 2015 projects.

Federal funds pay for 52 percent of the annual cost of road and bridge projects nationwide, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. In Montana, federal dollars supply 87 percent of state highway funding, according to the state Department of Transportation. Only 13 percent comes from the state fuel tax.

If Congress doesn’t act before its vacation, the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in August.

Update fuel tax

The logical solution is to raise the 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax and the 24.4-cent per gallon diesel tax. The cost of building transportation infrastructure has increased in the two decades since those taxes were set, but the tax remains the same, creating a gap between revenue and what’s needed to update the nation’s roads.

Most members of Congress are afraid to admit that a tax increase is necessary. However, at least two bipartisan bills have been introduced to modestly increase fuel taxes. Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have proposed raising the fuel tax by 6 cents per gallon this year and again next year, and then indexing the taxes to inflation.

That’s a sensible solution. But don’t expect Congress to act sensibly.

In the run up to summer vacation, the best we can hope for is a patch with gimmicky “pay fors” that will keep road workers on the job through this construction season.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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