The Highway Trust Fund, used to finance a variety of transportation projects across the county, is projected to dry up in coming weeks unless reauthorized.
The HTF receives money from the 18.4 cents per gallon tax on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel and other related excise taxes. It was established in 1956 to finance the federal interstate road system.
The gas and diesel tax rates have not changed since 1993, and account for 90 percent of the fund’s revenue. The remainder comes from taxes on tires, trucks and trailers, and certain kinds of vehicles
The Highway Trust Fund is essentially divided into two accounts. The Highway Account disburses about 85 percent on roadway infrastructure and other projects with the Mass Transit Account expending about 15 percent on such items as rail, buses, and streetcars.
The key word in the Highway Trust Fund is, of course, Highway. The gas tax is paid, under the theory, by the people who use the roads—classic user fee. You use it, you pay for it. However, the program now subsidizes mass transit and other programs -- like, bike trails and lanes, hiking trails, streetcars, ferries and more. Federal spending on such side projects has increased dramatically in the last few years while actual highway spending has been flat.
In addition, Congress and the states divert roughly 25 percent of the Highway Trust Fund spending to non-highway projects. The largest of these diversions is the Mass Transit Account, which spent some $8 billion in 2014 on buses, rail, streetcars, and other projects, really local not federal responsibility. Other programs include the Transportation Alternatives Program, which spent almost a billion dollars last year on the critical needs of sidewalks, bike paths, scenic overlooks, vegetation management, and recreational trails.
So what we have here is not a highway spending problem but a program that has overflowed its original banks of its purpose. As usual in government programs, it is the lack of money, not the amount of spending that is important.
Congress has not passed a long-term transportation-funding bill since 2005 but instead has passed 33 short-term fixes.
In the past few years, spending shortfalls have been made up of general revenues. However, these short-term fixes are unsatisfactory and some sort of solution has become the “must do legislation de jure”.
The issue, however -- is how will a new transportation bill be funded? The proceeds from the original three-cent gas tax built the interstate system. Increases in the federal gas tax have paid for expansion and upgrades since. However, better fuel economy, the recession, less driving has not provided the funds for the voracious spending appetite of the expanded program.
The focus is centered on taxes, not on programmatic issues. Both parties love to dole out highway money. Liberals get subsidized mass transit, bike paths and plenty of money for their unions buddies. Republicans get roads built and giant projects for all the construction companies.
The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee have given lots of lip service but not much action. Well, no action. As there has been much talk about broader and long-term "tax reform," both committees are weighing the short-term potential of using "corporate tax changes" or "international" tax changes to fund transportation programs. The idea faces significant hurdles. The simple solution of just raising the gas tax is a nonstarter. Suggestions of charging for miles driven through some sort of big brother monitoring systems are chilling as well as a long way off. It is a mess.
The honest way would be to scrap the HTF and admit that the HTF is a general transportation program and treat it as such.
If the effort to use a tax overhaul to pay for roadwork fails, lawmakers likely will fall back on a patchwork approach to fund the program for the next six months or whatever from a hodgepodge of sources or perhaps not to offset the cost of some or all the highway spending, as they have in the recent past.
Now, for the most important part. Why does it take so so long to ever get anything built? I have driven by the same construction zones for years and years. In my area, it took more than a year to build a bridge not much longer than my car and this was after work actually started.
Drive by a construction site and no one is working and if there is some movement, there is still 14 guys holding a shovel doing nothing and another 14 just squatting on the ground. With millions of people not employed, leaving the work force, it would seem you could throw say 5,000 people on a project and get it done in 2 weeks, not 4 years.