By Curtis Tate, September 26, 2013
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) listens to testimony during a Committee
hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, March 29, 2011.
WASHINGTON -- The federal highway
trust fund will run out of money by 2015, which will have a “devastating
impact” in states that rely heavily on federal funds for their road
maintenance and construction needs, transportation officials told
To preserve the fund, road builders and engineers, state transportation officials and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pleading with Congress to raise the federal gasoline tax for the first time in 20 years.
funding had brought Democrats and Republicans together in the past, but
the parties are now deeply divided over fiscal policy, including
increases to taxes that fund infrastructure.
If Congress doesn’t act, some warned, states will feel the pain.
“We have to act,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “The country is counting on us.”
The fund typically supports about $40 billion a year in spending on highway and transit programs nationwide. But the Congressional Budget Office projects that in 2015, the tank will be empty.
“We are facing an epic crisis,” Greg Cohen, president and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance, told the Senate committee.
current transportation bill expires in about a year, and getting a new
one through a Congress split on practically everything could be a tough
haul. It took three years to pass the current bill, which only lasts two
years. Transportation funding bills in the past typically covered five
to six years.
“I think we’re headed for a bit of a collision here,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
California, for example, could lose all but $18 million of the $3.5 billion a year it counts on.
to the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials,
such a reduction would stop work on hundreds of state-sponsored road projects, including a $95 million pavement rehabilitation on Interstate 80 in Sacramento County. And without those federal funds, the group said, California’s own highway fund could go broke soon after.
Congress hasn’t touched the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax that supports the highway trust fund since 1993.
The fund has lost more than a third of its buying power because of inflation. Americans were driving less during the recent recession. And fuel economy has improved, meaning less tax money collected at the pump to replenish the fund.
“It will go bankrupt a year from now,” said Michael Lewis,
director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and president
of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation
To head off that scenario, the CBO estimates that the
tax needs to be increased by at least 10 cents a gallon and indexed to
“We all agree that we have to pay more,” Cohen said.
But tax increases
are a touchy subject. Most Republicans in Congress have signed pledges
not to raise any taxes, and many in both parties balk at the prospect of
asking voters to pay more.
“It’s not fair or reasonable for middle-class families to endure a net tax increase,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the ranking member of the committee.
taxpayers are paying the bill anyway. The highway fund hasn’t had
enough money to cover what states need since 2008, so Congress has
bailed it out with more than $50 billion in general revenues. With the
federal government grappling with mandatory across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, “those days are over,” Boxer said.
In the meantime, states have raised their own gas taxes, replaced them with sales taxes and sought private-sector financing to meet their needs. Others are experimenting with toll roads or fees based on miles driven.
“The states are demonstrating great leadership,” Boxer said.
on average rely on federal funds for half their annual capital spending
on bridges and highways. Ten states count on federal funds for more
than 70 percent of such spending, according to the American Road and
Transportation Builders Association.
In South Carolina, federal
funds make up 79 percent of state road and bridge spending. In Alaska,
it’s 93 percent. The two states have the lowest gasoline taxes in the
Every state’s economy is interconnected by roads,
especially the interstate highway system. But the highways are reaching
the end of their lifecycle and require major repair and reconstruction.
States are counting on lawmakers to come through.
alone cannot solve our transportation and infrastructure issues,” said
Greg DiLoreto, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.