Huge Potholes Ahead for Highway Trust Fund

By Tom Bacon

Washington Senator Patty Murray leaned hard on the horn this week, trying to warn Congress that the federal highway trust fund is going broke faster than anyone thought. The Department of Transportation warned the trust fund will run out of gas completely by the end of August, rather than in October as first projected.

And Murray, who is chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said the warning ought to be a wakeup call to Congress. As she put it, "the Highway Trust Fund is heading toward an avoidable crisis which could lead to a construction shutdown on our nation's roads and bridges." She said that fund balances are so low now that states will be forced to cancel infrastructure projects.

The trust fund is replenished by the federal 18.4 cent a gallon gasoline tax. But the rate is not indexed to inflation, and it has not been raised since 1993. Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Portland has written a bill to hike the tax by 15-cents a gallon in yearly increments, but his measure is going nowhere in the tax-shy Congress.

Murray favors proposals from the White House and from House Ways and Means Committee chair Dave Camp. They would use money from corporate tax reform to fatten the trust fund. But tax reform is also a will-o'-the-wisp goal in the fractured law-making body.

The House GOP budget proposal would fund highways from offsetting cuts in other areas of the federal budget, but Murray said lawmakers don't have enough time to study it before the trust fund goes bankrupt. Unless politicians can agree on a funding plan before summer, states may have to park the bulldozers, and furlough a good many construction workers.
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