Policy: Environment & Energy

How to shore up the highway fund

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Transportation,Senate,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Budgets and Deficits,Zack Colman,Oil,Gas Prices,Magazine,Gas Tax

The Highway Trust Fund is broken. Slated to run out of money by Aug. 1, the fund has relied on an 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax last raised in 1993.

The House has passed a bipartisan stopgap funding measure that would keep construction projects going through May by transferring $9.9 billion from the general Treasury and $1 billion from another trust fund. The Senate is expected to pass a similar bill this month.

But that won't fix the fund, which has a structural shortfall due to more fuel-efficient vehicles, fewer people driving and a trend toward urbanization. Here are some solutions from around the political spectrum:

From the Right:

Devolution reigns supreme.

Emily Goff, transportation and infrastructure policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said one idea is the "Transportation Empowerment Act" proposed by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga. This would ratchet the gas tax down to 3.7 cents per gallon. The federal government would distribute the proceeds as block grants to states solely for the Interstate Highway System. States would fund their own roads and repairs however they please -- vehicle mileage tax, toll systems or otherwise.

"The idea being that the states still have a vested interest in good interstate highways and roads," said Goff, who was speaking of the Graves bill as an example of devolution -- shifting the responsibility to the states -- that she supports.

Of course, public-private partnerships that would run the toll roads and other projects have their hiccups. State contracts to political benefactors are a dime a dozen. But politicians are more easily held accountable for such misdeeds at the state level, Goff argued.

From the Left:

Miles driven, rather than gasoline purchased, would better gauge the wear and tear on roads, argued two scholars at the Center for American Progress: Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy, and economist Michael Madowitz.

Replacing the gas tax with a fee of 1.3 cents per mile driven would raise the same amount, more accurately assess driving patterns and properly price congestion, they said.

A mileage-based fee would blunt shortfalls from the proliferation of electric vehicles and more stringent fuel-economy standards coming down the pike -- 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

This is different than an Oregon pilot program that tracks miles driven via GPS. That would invite civil liberties concerns. As Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden told the Washington Examiner, "I haven't spent all my years fighting the NSA just to fight the DMV."

DeGood and Madowitz said vehicles and associated devices — say, a cell phone Bluetooth — would emit a weak signal that wouldn't transmit data continuously, only enough to track miles driven.

Other options:

There's no shortage of lofty bills filed and ideas floated in Congress on the issue.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would replace the gas tax with a fee on oil wholesalers. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would phase in a 15-cent gas tax increase, indexed to inflation, that Congress would replace with a different system in 2024. Wyden advocated a return to "Build America Bonds," calling it "legislative malpractice" to avoid bonds with interest rates so low.

Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., is sponsoring legislation letting states opt out of the federal gas tax, instead collecting their own gas tax within their borders. Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would raise the gas tax 6 cents in each of the next two years, coupled with tax breaks, such as making some "extenders" permanent. They haven't named any specifics, but the wind-production tax credit could be one.

But, for now, Congress is prepared to do what Congress does best — punt.

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