The Highway Trust Fund, which provides the dollars needed for federal highway, rail, and transit projects, has reported a negative cash flow since 2000. Fed mostly by gasoline taxes at the pump, the fund has seen its value decline because of more fuel-efficient cars, wider use of public transit, and reduced buying power.
As essential transportation projects in Ohio and elsewhere must tap a dwindling pool of resources, Congress has refused to address the fund’s shortfall. Years of off-and-on debate have not compelled lawmakers to take the obvious necessary action: boosting the federal gasoline tax. At 18.4 cents per gallon, the tax has not increased since 1993.
This year, the fund is expected to collect $33 billion — far less than the $45 billion needed to support the next round of construction and repair projects. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warned that the fund would be drained by this month, causing highway and transit projects to stop.
Yet despite this warning, Congress still would not do the right thing. Rather than establish a dependable source of highway funding for the future, the Senate went along with a House-passed bill that kicked the can down the road.
The plan makes corporate tax changes and charges higher customs fees to help generate $10.9 billion for the fund through next May. While this Band-Aid approach will keep projects and jobs on track temporarily, the funding issue will have to be revisited — again.
After the November election, it’s to be hoped that lawmakers will find the backbone to approve a real solution: raising the gas tax.