700,000 Jobs Are At Stake If The Highway Trust Fund Goes Broke

The federal gas tax that's supposed to pay for the nation's highways doesn't bring in enough money. But Congress hasn't raised the tax in more than 20 years and isn't likely to do so now.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transportation advocates are calling this Infrastructure Week. To mark that week, President Obama spoke yesterday on the banks of the Hudson River just north of New York City. Construction is underway there on $3.9 billion replacement for the old Tappan Zee Bridge. Engineers say one out of nine bridges in this country needs repair.

Road builders, who lobby for highway funding, contend that hundreds of thousands of miles of roads also need fixing. And while some may debate the numbers, there is no dispute that the federal highway trust fund, which pays for Washington's share of road and bridge repairs, is about to run dry. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on how that happened.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It was with a vision of a wheeled utopia that Congress approved the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The most talked about phase of the act is the interstate highway system, a 41,000 mile network of our most important roads. Most of these roads will be four, six, even eight lane expressways constructed for thru traffic.

NAYLOR: The act authorized something called the highway trust fund to pay for the interstate system and other roads. Money in the trust fund came from those who used the roads, in the form of a tax on gas and diesel fuel. Richard Geddes directs Cornell University's program in infrastructure policy.

RICHARD GEDDES: The idea was that those user fees on gasoline and diesel would flow into a federal fund that was walled off from the rest of the federal budget.

NAYLOR: The gas tax was initially three cents a gallon. Over the years Congress raised it to keep pace with rising costs; the last increase brought it to 18.4 cents. That was in 1993. In the years since, inflation and more efficient cars have combined to the point where the fuels tax and the trust fund can no longer keep up with the cost of repairing and replacing the nation's roads and bridges.

Congress's solution? Not raise the gas tax, but take money out of the general fund to prop up the highway trust fund. Since 2008, Congress has moved $54 billion from the general fund to the trust fund. Geddes says that transfer may not seem like a big deal, but it kind of is.

GEDDES: The more you move towards general fund revenues, the less user fees are paying for the cost of the roads.

NAYLOR: But now the trust fund needs another infusion of cash - otherwise it will run out of money just as the summer road building season hits its peak. If that happens, transportation advocates warn, states will have to stop work, putting as many as 700,000 construction workers at risk. Terry O'Sullivan is General President of LiUNA, the laborers union.

TERRY O'SULLIVAN: Each of our organizations here today are planning aggressive efforts to press for passage of a long term full investment highway bill this year and to put the trust back in the highway trust fund.

NAYLOR: But how to do that? Key congressional Republicans have already thrown cold water on raising the gas tax. President Obama has proposed closing some corporate tax loopholes and letting states put tolls on the interstates, but lawmakers haven't warmed to that idea either. Another idea, one that Geddes favors, is to charge highway users based on the miles they drive.

GEDDES: For example, we're used to paying per kilowatt hour prices for electricity per therm of natural gas, per gallon of water, per minute of cell phone use. So it's a pretty common model.

NAYLOR: But none of these proposals is likely to win approval in time to solve the coming highway trust fund crunch. Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is close to House GOP leaders, says most likely Congress will turn once again to general funds.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: I think a lot of states are going to run into problems in the fall and, you know, look, that's not good at any point. It's probably particularly not smart right before an election. So that suggests to me that hopefully we can find some way working in a bipartisan fashion hopefully with the administration to keep construction going.

NAYLOR: The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would take $18 billion from general funds to bail out the highway trust fund next year alone. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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