Thursday, May 21, 2015

Highway Trust Fund “Patch” Isn’t Even A Band-Aid

            Tuesday’s House vote of 387-35 to pass HR 2353, which is expected to pass the Senate by tomorrow and be signed by President Obama before the current, and very temporary, surface transportation funding measure expires May 31, will be the 33rd stopgap measure enacted in the last six years. HR 2353 will extend Highway Trust Fund appropriations at current levels only until July 31. Ironically, six years has been the customary duration of Highway Trust Fund appropriations. However, because Congress lacks the guts to increase the motor fuel tax rate to bolster revenues declining due to better gas mileage mandated by CAFÉ legislation, legislators and the administration continue to disagree on new methods of replenishing the Highway Trust Fund, and prospects for agreement on another six year appropriation bill remain in limbo.
            House leaders and construction trade groups back a $401 billion six year funding measure, supported by a motor fuel tax hike from the current 18.4 cents per gallon to 33.4 cents per gallon, while Senate leaders and the Obama administration favor a six year, $478 billion appropriation, with as yet unspecified funding sources. Meanwhile, California, Indiana, Oregon and Washington are in various phases of experimentation with alternate taxes on miles driven rather than gallons burned as a way of replacing declining motor fuel tax revenues for maintaining transportation infrastructure. The Oregon experiment is farthest along. Beginning July 1, as many as 5,000 volunteers in that state will begin participation in a pilot program collecting 1.5 cents per mile driven, as measured by odometer devices or GPS software on their vehicles, and receiving reimbursement for fuel taxes collected at the pump, as well as credit for miles driven on private property and out of state.
            Oregon officials have worked with the ACLU on measures to protect driver privacy while Oregon government gathers records of miles driven via GPS mapping, but the complexity of tracking miles driven on private property or out of state suggests the “pay by the mile” tax will not be readily transferrable to federal revenue generation. Meanwhile, opposition to state wide adoption of the Oregon experiment is growing among those who see it as a strong disincentive to the purchase of environmentally friendly hybrid and electric vehicles.

            Time alone will tell whether there is any politically acceptable solution to the problem of paying for maintenance and expansion of America’s aging and crumbling transportation infrastructure, but once again, the passage of HR 2353 means time is very, very short.
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