Straight talk in Washington is as rare as smooth pavement. But Congress got a dose on transportation funding this month from Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.).
“Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government,” Senator Corker said.
If lawmakers aren’t embarrassed, we’re embarrassed for them. For years, they’ve put their own political interests ahead of the nation’s, allowing the country’s roads and bridges to crumble and transit systems to wither, while the needle on the Highway Trust Fund sunk toward “E.”
The trust fund is expected to run out of money late next month or in early August — the height of the construction season. That threatens to halt billions of dollars’ worth of needed road and bridge work, as well as 700,000 good-paying jobs.
Nearly 40 percent of Ohio’s annual $2.8 billion transportation budget comes from the Highway Trust Fund. Federal funds to Ohio are likely to drop by 30 percent by August if nothing changes. The I-75 reconstruction through downtown Toledo and the McCord Road underpass in Holland are among the many local projects that could be disrupted.
Northwest Ohio has roughly $700 million in projects lined up for the next three years. The region also has more than 260 structurally deficient bridges, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, (D., Ohio), who supported a proposed increase in the federal motor fuels tax during a recent stop in Toledo.
It was easy to see this crisis coming. 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.
The 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax hasn’t risen since 1993. Since then, it has lost, through inflation, nearly half of its purchasing power.
Senator Corker and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) propose a bipartisan plan to shore up the Highway Trust Fund by raising the federal gas tax to improve roads, bridges, and transit systems. The senators’ proposal would increase federal gasoline and diesel taxes by six cents in each of the next two years. That would at least replace the buying power lost in the past two decades, raising an estimated $164 billion over 10 years.
The plan also would index the gas tax to inflation, using the Consumer Price Index to ensure that the tax is sustainable. To offset the gas tax increase, Senators Corker and Murphy propose providing net tax relief for families and businesses through other tax breaks.
The two senators have wisely decided to delay introducing their legislation until after the November election, using that time to build support for their plan. Meantime, Congress will need to enact an interim plan, amounting to about $10 billion, to shore up the trust fund until the end of the year.
With the midterm election behind them, members of Congress should be able to straighten their spines enough to do what’s right. The plan has broad support from labor unions, business groups, and consumer advocates.
As vehicles become more fuel-efficient and Americans drive less, the nation must look at better, more sustainable ways to pay for transportation needs. But that will take years, even decades.
Until then, raising the federal gas tax, as Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush did during their administrations, is the only practical way to avoid a road to ruin.