With the nation’s transportation program facing an expiration deadline last Saturday, Congress rounded up its last few remnants of bipartisanship and passed a bill to keep the concrete flowing for two more years. It was far from ideal, but given the level of acrimony in the Capitol, it was probably the best that could be expected under the circumstances.
Normally, these big highway bills set up a program for five years. This one will continue current funding levels for 27 months for a total cost of $120 billion.
Unfortunately, the measure does nothing about the biggest long-term problem confronting the nation’s method of transportation finance. For decades, we have relied on a user fee concept — a fuel tax — to pay for major projects such as the interstate highway system. You only pay the tax if you drive and use the roads.
A user fee is still the best way to finance such major projects, but the 18.4-cent federal gasoline tax hasn’t been raised since 1993. Meanwhile, many people are driving less because of the sluggish economy, while cars have become more fuel efficient. That means fewer gallons of fuel sold relative to miles driven — and a shortfall for the Highway Trust Fund that has to be made up with general revenue.
In an election year and in a time of sluggish economic growth, an increase in the fuel tax would have been severely punished by the voters. But Congress cannot ignore this problem forever. A U.S. Treasury study estimated that congestion costs the nation $100 billion a year in wasted time and wasted fuel.
Nor can we continue dipping into general revenue in an era of trillion-dollar deficits. The fuel tax must be raised or supplemented with some other sort of user fee, and Congress must do more to encourage private investment in roads and transportation financed by tolls. Many will complain about the higher levies, but the cost of doing nothing means more hours stuck in traffic, and many more gallons of wasted fuel.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.