Congress is — again — planning to pass a temporary extension for the Highway Trust Fund, which uses the federal gas tax to pay for road, bridge and public transit construction. But the fund is nearly broke. Last year, lawmakers adopted a 10-month extension so they would have time to develop a longer-term funding plan. But with the May 31 deadline approaching and no deal in sight, members are expected to pass a two-month patch.
This is Congress at its most frustrating. There is widespread public support for repairing and upgrading the nation's infrastructure, and there have been bipartisan proposals to help close the funding gap by gradually increasing the gasoline tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993. Federal officials have documented the backlog of deferred maintenance — more than half of the nation's major roads are rated poor or mediocre and one-quarter of the bridges are structurally deficient. Yet lawmakers repeatedly passed stopgap measures rather than address the underlying problem, which is that the fund doesn't generate enough money to pay for the essential transportation investments needed.
The Highway Trust Fund was designed to be a self-sufficient, user-supported fund. Users of the roads would pay gas taxes at the pump that would finance transportation infrastructure. But lawmakers have refused to increase the gas tax to keep up with inflation. That inaction, coupled with the growing fuel efficiency of the nation's vehicle fleet, has whittled away the buying power of the fund over many years. The gasoline tax currently generates about $35 billion a year, but the federal government spends more than $50 billion on highway and transit projects. Congress has had to transfer money from the general fund to cover the shortfall.
The most rational step is to increase the gas tax and set future increases to the rate of inflation. However, Republican leaders, President Obama and many Democrats have flatly refused to do it. Instead, they've proposed tapping various fees and funding schemes unrelated to transportation. If members of Congress and the Obama administration don't want to raise the gas tax, then they should be hard at work developing an alternative source of reliable transportation funding. This extension should be the last. It's time to fix the Highway Trust Fund.