EDITORIAL

Running on empty

3/3/2014

The federal highway trust fund is running out of gas. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expects it to run out of money in August, during the height of road construction season and two months before the current two-year transportation bill expires, putting 700,000 jobs at risk.

As vehicles become more fuel-efficient and Americans drive less, the nation must find a better, more sustainable way to pay for transportation needs. Until then, raising the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, which has not gone up since 1993, is the easiest and most reliable way to pay for road, bridge, transit, and other transportation projects.

Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to renew the transportation bill. An empty highway trust fund could halt billions of dollars’ worth of projects around the nation, including work worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Ohio. In the Toledo area, these projects include the widening of I-75 and reconstruction of the Anthony Wayne Bridge.

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Northwest Ohio has roughly $700 million in projects lined up for the next three years, said Warren Henry, vice president of transportation for the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments. All of them involve federal funding.

Nearly 40 percent of Ohio’s annual $2.8-billion transportation budget comes from the highway trust fund. An immediate halt this summer to transportation projects here and around the nation isn’t likely; Congress in recent years has approved 11th-hour extensions to the transportation bill that drew on subsidies from the general treasury.

But such risky practices can’t go on indefinitely, without bankrupting the country or drastically reducing an already inadequate U.S. transportation program. The condition of the nation’s roads and bridges is almost at a crisis level. The country has barely begun to develop the mass transit systems it needs to meet the mobility, energy, and environmental needs of the 21st century.

The highway trust fund has spent more than it has collected in gasoline taxes since 2000. This year, the highway account will spend $45 billion, while taking in only $33 billion in revenue.

Next year, CBO projects a $13 billion shortfall. Since 2008, Congress has shifted tens of billions of dollars from the general treasury to the trust fund.

Last week, President Obama proposed a four-year, $302 billion plan that would provide a more balanced and adequate transportation system. The proposal, which would boost federal highway spending by 22 percent, earmarks $206 billion for new highway projects, $72 billion for transit, and $19 billion for high-performance and passenger rail programs, including high-speed rail and Amtrak expansion.

Unfortunately, the President’s transportation plan relies on another slapdash one-time fix — in this case, vague and unspecified corporate and business tax reforms to generate $150 billion.

Neither Mr. Obama nor Congress has had the courage to talk about raising federal gasoline taxes, even though transportation experts and several blue-ribbon federal commissions agree that raising gas taxes and indexing them to inflation is the only real solution.

In the long term, the country needs to find a better and more sustainable way to pay for transportation projects, as increasing fuel efficiency makes the gas tax increasingly inadequate. Ideas include odometer taxes and vehicle license fees based on vehicle mileage and weight.

Switching to another funding system, however, would take years — and the nation can’t wait. Congress and President Obama must do what President Ronald Reagan, the great tax cutter, did in 1982: raise the federal gas tax.