Driving the Highway Trust Fund Into the Ground

Failure to fix the nation's transportation-funding system would be the latest economic wound inflicted on the country by the feckless 113th Congress.
Eric Thayer/Reuters

The incipient deal between Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders and his House counterpart Jeff Miller on a VA-reform bill to deal with the terrible backlogs of medical treatment is the first encouraging sign that the last stages of the 113th Congress will not be a total, embarrassing failure. There is also a chance, though not a great one, that we will see some kind of patch to deal with the border crisis. Still, with only two days left before the August break, with a minimal schedule set for the fall, and with Republicans determined not to rock their own boat by forcing votes that divide the GOP Conference between radicals and conservatives—which means votes on almost anything that could result in a signing ceremony—it is hard to be very bullish.

And that is profoundly depressing. The fact is that there are multiple crises or pressing problems out there, and the deep dysfunction in Congress is like a force field where progress on solutions bounces off to die. Nowhere is this more true than in the broad area of infrastructure, and the narrower and more immediate need to replenish the Highway Trust Fund.

The fund has been financed through the gasoline tax, and a combination of factors has seen it dwindle to next to nothing. With crumbling highways and bridges and greater demand, the needs have grown. But the revenue from the gas tax, which has not changed from the 18.4 cents a gallon imposed in 1993, has not come close to keeping pace. Inflation has reduced its value by nearly 40 percent; if inflation indexing had been in place, the tax on autos would now be 29 cents a gallon. At the same time, the dramatic advances in fuel efficiency have substantially eroded the amount coming in, and the value will erode much further as the new fuel-efficiency standards take effect over the next decade.

The Senate wrestled Tuesday with a short-term patch for the highway fund, and the House passed a $10.8 billion bill last week that would keep projects going through May. But the efforts represent only a quick fix. The Congressional Budget Office tells us that to meet the expected needs for highway infrastructure, the trust fund will require an additional $172 billion over the next 10 years. The good news is that this spending is a bargain, given its propellent effect on the economy and jobs.

There is an immediate need to replenish the Highway Trust Fund to prevent a disaster in the peak construction season coming up. The estimates are that failure to do so will cut federal transportation dollars going to the states by 28 percent, affecting 100,000 projects that employ 700,000 workers, and dealing a serious blow to an economy trying now to recover from the long period of economic downturn and stagnation. The way to do that is to increase the gasoline tax. Problem-solvers Bob Corker of Tennessee and Chris Murphy of Connecticut have proposed a commonsense and modest plan calling for an increase of 12 cents per gallon in the tax, indexing it to inflation. But House Republicans have balked at any tax increase (thanks, Grover Norquist!). And plenty of Democrats in Congress and the White House are fearful of a gas-tax increase right before the election—it is, after all, the most visible federal tax, something most Americans see every time they go to fill up.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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