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Trying to keep the highway fund alive

Tuesday, August 12, 2014 - Updated: 7:17 AM

Federal legislators have become so adept at kicking the can down the road that they can even do it when that can is the road itself.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate last week "solved" the insolvency problem with portions of the Highway Trust Fund by kicking in enough money to extend its life. This extension will last a whopping 10 months -- yes, not even a full year.

Established in 1956, the Highway Trust Fund has three accounts: the Highway Account, the Mass Transit Account and the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. The Congressional Budget Office has issued reports about the likely insolvency of the Highway and Mass Transit accounts, causing panic among federal and state officials over the potential loss of highway construction funds beginning in August.

The Senate approved a $10.8 billion extension by a vote of 81-13, the same bill that senators rejected earlier in the week. This bill included a provision to syphon $1 billion from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund into the Highway Account.

"The Senate voted for a House-passed measure to augment the federal Highway Trust Fund with an infusion of $10.8 billion from the general Treasury -- enough to keep the fund solvent through May. The Transportation Department set Aug. 8 as the date the fund would no longer be able to provide all the aid promised from incoming gasoline and diesel fuel taxes," according to The Associated Press. "The bill now goes to the president."

Federal taxes of 18.4 cents per gallon on regular gas and 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel provide the revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. But Congress has not increased these taxes since 1993. It has kicked in $55 billion since 2008 to keep it afloat.

The answer is to raise these taxes to ensure a steady stream of revenue. But who wants to raise taxes these days, particularly with an election just around the corner?

Congress also must address the fact that a good portion of these taxes improperly goes toward mass transit programs mainly in large metropolitan regions. So fuel taxes paid by Americans in rural areas are funding New York City's subway system.

This latest measure does little but to postpone the debate over how to keep this fund alive until next spring. Then those on Capitol Hill will probably approve another short-term measure, and then another one, and then another one .

Making difficult decisions is part of the job for legislators. If we are to maintain this account as a source of revenue for vital highway projects, they'll have to bite the bullet and increase the fuel taxes.

If they don't, they'll always run into these disagreements leading to last-minute deals. But there's going to come a time when one of these disagreements will push beyond the eleventh hour, and the fund won't operate as it's designed. Then legislators seeking re-election will return to their districts and have to explain to construction workers why it's a good thing that they lost their jobs and that our roadways continue to crumble.

-- The Watertown Daily Times

     

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