Last month, the Federal Highway Administration announced what highway watchers had long feared. The Highway Trust Fund would be broke at the end of the month, far sooner than expected. The highway account, which is funded directly from fuel taxes, had been depleted largely because drivers had reduced their mileage during the preceding months in response to high fuel prices.
The funding drop comes at a time when the nation confronts a pressing need to increase spending for highway maintenance and added capacity. But Congress has resisted increasing the fuel tax, even in the face of rising construction costs and warnings that the fragile state of the nation's infrastructure threatens to impede economic growth.
When the FHWA announced that the funds would run dry and that disbursements to the states were likely to be sharply curtailed, calls for congressional action quickly followed. President Bush, reversing his earlier opposition, signed into law a bill that transfers $8 billion from the government's already deep-in-debt General Fund into the trust fund.
That funding is a bit of a finger in the dike, offering a temporary patch to an enormous problem—one that connects intimately with not only highway and construction requirements, but with economic, environmental, energy, and other far-reaching issues as well. But it's not one likely to get much attention from this administration or the next, whoever wins the election next month, given preoccupation with two wars, belligerent foes, mistrusting allies, a sagging economy, the stubborn mortgage and housing crisis, and other pressing demands for attention. And history does not offer much encouragement. Look back just to the last reauthorization of the highway funding program, which became a long-running epic with extension after extension to the existing law in 2003 and 2004 before Congress finally agreed on a bill in August 2005. That bill, which authorized $286.5 billion in spending, was chock full of earmarks, including funds for the now infamous Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.
That bill expires next year, and the battle lines are already being drawn. Getting Congress to overcome the time-worn parochial get-mine approach to the reauthorization and instead focus on what serves the national interest will take leadership not often seen when there's money involved. And there should be more on the table than just higher highway taxes and highway projects. Privatization, congestion pricing, new tolls and other user fees, truck-only lanes, and mileage taxes all ought to be part of the debate.
Will we see a transformation in transportation policy? One can hope. But it will not be an easy ride.