The following article appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on July 20, 2014. Although legislation has passed the House (and will likely pass the Senate soon) to temporarily prop up the highway program and avoid an immediate crisis, the need for fundamental change in how America builds and maintains its infrastructure remains.
The next manufactured crisis coming from Washington, DC involves the federal highway program. According to news reports, the Federal Highway Trust Fund is on the cusp of insolvency, with a cash shortage looming before the end of July. Despite the deadline, lawmakers are at an impasse over how to replenish an account that funds the nation’s highway projects.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is warning states would, on average, see a 28 percent reduction in federal dollars to cover the costs of current needs if additional funding is not found. One potential source of funding is a hike in the federal gas tax.
In its current form, the federal highway program is financed through an 18.4 cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.4 cent tax on diesel fuel. Unfortunately, while the gas tax more closely resembles a user fee than other taxes charged by Washington, it isn’t. If it were a user-fee, gas taxes would finance roads, bridges and other items that benefit motorists who pay the tax. Instead, over the past decade, Congress has diverted well over $55 billion of gas taxes to non-highway projects, most notably mass transit.
Whether you want more mass transit or less, the fact is that transit riders don’t pay the gas tax, rather motorists subsidize these systems nationwide. Ideally, Congress would create transportation policy under the principal of “user pays.”