The federal Highway Trust Fund, which helps pay for road, bridge, and mass-transit construction in Ohio and across the country, is set to run out of money next month. Should that happen, federal transportation aid to states would instantly drop by more than one-fourth. Projects that employ 700,000 workers, at the peak of the construction season, would shut down or be greatly scaled back or delayed.
This further disinvestment in infrastructure maintenance would mean, at best, more traffic congestion and higher car-repair bills for motorists. At worst, bad roads that are allowed to get even worse would contribute to a higher number of deadly auto accidents.
Both houses of Congress propose stopgaps that would keep the highway fund in business through next May (and thus past the November elections). But lawmakers of both parties — especially House Republicans — remain so terrified of offending no-tax radicals that they continue to resist the obvious, permanent solution: Raise the federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel for the first time in 21 years, and index them to inflation.
A bill passed by the GOP-controlled House this week would barely replenish the trust fund through next May, mostly with higher tax revenues paid by companies that would be allowed to use an accounting device called “pension smoothing.” The gimmick could enable employers to underfund their pension plans, at least temporarily.
That would save these companies more money than they would pay in higher taxes, but also risk workers’ retirement security and ultimately a taxpayer bailout. To prevent an immediate crisis in highway funding, President Obama — who has declined to back a higher gas tax — said he would support the House bill.
A measure before the Democratic-majority Senate is marginally better; it would raise money for the trust fund through what supporters call enhanced tax enforcement. But the time for short-term fixes that merely kick the trust-fund can a few more feet down the road is long past.
When the Highway Trust Fund began in 1956, the link between highway funding and the federal gas tax was intended to provide a fair, self-sufficient, predictable source of revenue. But since Congress last increased the gas tax in 1993, to 18.4 cents a gallon, inflation has cost it 40 percent of its purchasing power.
Much the same is true of the 24.4-cent diesel tax. So the ability of these taxes to pay for transportation projects has fallen increasingly short of the need, forcing Congress to use general-fund money to close part of the gap.
The gas tax is largely a user fee: Motorists who drive more pay more — and benefit more from better roads — even as cars and trucks generally become more fuel-efficient. Expecting states to pick up more of the burden of highway funding is futile; Ohio and Michigan state lawmakers also have defaulted on their duty to provide adequate road aid.
The federal trust fund pays for nearly 40 percent of the Ohio Department of Transportation’s annual $2.6 billion budget. If the fund goes broke next month, the reconstruction of I-75 in downtown Toledo that is scheduled to start soon would still proceed. But other major local projects, including critical highway and bridge repairs, are at risk.
A bipartisan Senate bill would raise the gas and diesel taxes by 12 cents a gallon over two years, and then index them to inflation. This measure, rather than yet another quick fix, deserves the support of Congress and the President.
Maintaining the nation’s vital physical infrastructure is among the essential responsibilities of the federal government, promoting both public safety and economic growth. Lawmakers who shirk this duty deserve Americans’ condemnation, not their votes.
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