Gazette opinion: Time to refuel America’s Highway Trust Fund

2014-06-29T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Time to refuel America’s Highway Trust Fund The Billings Gazette
June 29, 2014 12:00 am

America’s transportation program is running on empty.

By August, the Highway Trust Fund is projected to have insufficient funds to provide states with promised money for this year’s highway projects — unless Congress acts sooner.

When enacted in 1993, the 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax funded all federal surface transportation appropriations. But over the past 21 years, construction costs rose faster than tax revenues, more Americans started driving fuel-efficient cars, and people drove less during the Great Recession. By 2008, fuel tax revenues no longer covered the projects members of Congress wanted to fund, so they started adding billions of dollars to the federal debt.

The obvious solution is a modest increase in the per gallon tax that hasn’t been raised in 21 years. But “tax” is a dirty word on Capitol Hill, and most lawmakers have refused to support taxes for any reason. President Obama also has avoided calling for even a penny more in fuel taxes. Congressional proposals for funding the trust without a tax increase are short-term solutions at best. Mostly, they would rob Peter to pay Paul or count on uncertain corporate responses to piecemeal tax law revisions.

Sensible solution

Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have by far the most sensible solution: Raise the federal gas tax by 6 cents per gallon in each of the next two years, and then index it to inflation, so the trust fund won’t again be depleted.

With 3,878 miles of road in the National Highway System, Montana has a huge stake in the Highway Trust Fund. Eighty-seven percent of state highway funding comes from federal appropriations. Montana fuel tax proceeds supply only 13 percent.

Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley has said that about 13,000 jobs in our state are connected to highway construction. The department has already delayed seeking bids on its largest contract, a $20 million U.S. Highway 2 project, from summer till fall.

As previously reported by The Gazette, delays in transfer of promised funds to Montana could affect 235 projects totaling $1 billion.

Montana receives much more in federal fuel tax revenues than it sends to Washington, D.C. And a large chunk of the federal fuel taxes collected in Montana are paid by the 11 million visitors who travel our state annually. Fuel accounts for the largest share of visitor spending in many cities and counties across Montana.

Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton signed federal fuel tax increases into law. They acted to maintain critical public infrastructure. The fuel taxes now raise about $35 billion annually, but Congress has been sending $53 billion a year to the states. The deficit spending has added to the national debt.

Businesses that most depend on ground transportation support the Corker-Murphy proposal.

“Raising the fuel tax is long overdue,” said NATSO, the association representing U.S. truck stops.

“This practical, bipartisan proposal put forward by Senators Murphy and Corker would put the Highway Trust Fund on the path to solvency and provide the revenues we need to maintain a 21st Century transportation network,” said Bill Graves, CEO of the American Trucking Association.

Majority support

This month AAA released survey results showing that 68 percent of American motorists think the federal government should spend more on roads and bridges and that 52 percent said they are willing to pay higher taxes for better roads.

Nationwide, interruption of federal highway funding would affect more than 112,000 projects and nearly 700,000 workers over a year’s time, according to the White House.

The president and congressional leaders need to grasp the practicality of the Corker-Murphy plan and heed the call of transportation businesses and Americans who want safer roads.

Montana’s delegation should be leaders in pushing for a modest increase in federal fuel taxes, such as Murphy and Corker propose. No more deficit spending on roads. No more delays to replenish the trust. Get this done in July. Lawmakers shouldn’t even think about taking their traditional six-week congressional vacation in August and September until America’s transportation fund has been refueled.

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

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