The 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax is already inadequate to fund current infrastructure obligations, not least because, in recent years, Americans have been driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars. The good news is that we’re using less gasoline. The bad news is what that does to highway funding. In 2008, Congress had to kick in $8 billion to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent. And the trust fund’s finances will continue to deteriorate in the years to come, according to the CBO:
By 2018, the trust fund is projected to be short $80 billion. That’s the context for the coming showdown on transportation funding this fall. In the House, Rep. John Mica has put forward a transportation reauthorization bill costing $230 billion over six years — essentially a 33 percent cut from current levels. State officials are already complaining that that won’t even come close to meeting America’s infrastructure needs. (One example of our crumbling roads, courtesy of Transportation for America: The average bridge in America is about 42 years old. The average bridge’s lifetime? 50 years.) That’s because House Republicans want transportation funded solely from the ever-dwindling gas tax.
The obvious solution, which used to be a matter of bipartisan consensus, is to raise the gas tax as needed. Indexing it to inflation, or at least to the cost of construction materials, would be an excellent idea as well. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because transportation advocates have been saying the same thing here in Texas for several years, as we watch TxDOT warn about running out of money. Our “solutions” have been poorly conceived toll road schemes and floating billions of dollars in highway bonds. Which then need to be paid back with general revenue, meaning that they’re competing with schools and Medicaid and whatnot for those scarce resources instead of using the funds that were specifically dedicated for that purpose. How shortsighted is that?
Anyway. Keep all this in mind the next time you hear the usual suspects bloviate about how transit systems don’t pay for themselves. The next time one of them writes an op-ed about any of this will be the first.