Who Cares About the Highway Trust Fund?

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) is proposing today to make a small but crucial change in federal transit policy by requiring the nation’s Highway Trust Fund to keep the interest money it accrues, rather than give it up for the government’s general use.

ga_rep_john_lewis.jpgRep. John Lewis (D-GA) Photo: politicalkudzu.com.

Which brings up an even more crucial question: Why is it a good thing to give the Highway Trust Fund more cash?

For starters, the name of the 53-year-old fund is pretty misleading. Funded by the 18-cent-per-gallon gas tax, the highway trust fund (HTF) provides money not only for new roads, but also for mass transit.

Though public transportation receives a criminally paltry 2.86-cent share of gas tax proceeds, the HTF accounts for about 80 percent of the government’s total spending on mass transit. Strange as it sounds, then, keeping the HTF fiscally healthy is an important first step in giving Washington’s transportation policy a much-needed 21st-century shakeup.

In fact, the mass transit account of the HTF is at risk of exhaustion by 2012 — and that still puts it in better shape than the general highways account, which faces insolvency as soon as this fall.

Lewis’ bill would keep all transportation money from being diverted to patch other budget needs, thus strengthening the mass transit account and increasing the likelihood that the HTF funding crisis doesn’t scare Congress into postponing the entire debate over federal transportation reauthorization.

In short, the more quarters that can be scrounged from between the nation’s couch cushions for the HTF, the more likely we are to see a congressional transportation bill that reorders the nation’s priorities to reflect 21st-century reality.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

What Wasn’t in This Week’s Highway Trust Fund Patch

|
Transportation’s make-or-break week in Washington has ended with a funding face-off postponed until fall, thanks to Senate passage of a short-term, $7 billion rescue for the nation’s highway trust fund. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (Photo: PatersonOnline) The trust fund patch, designed to keep U.S. DOT dollars flowing to local road projects until September 30, keeps […]

Flashback: Does the Government Owe Transportation $21 Billion?

|
Welcome to Flashback, a regular feature at Streetsblog Capitol Hill looking back at past transportation policy debates that have the potential to impact the next congressional re-authorization — no matter when it occurs. For today’s installment, let’s start with an interesting comment that Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House transportation committee, made earlier […]

Lawmakers Pitch Transport Funding Ideas, From VMT to Freight Taxes

|
Leaders of the House transportation committee, doggedly pursuing a six-year, $450 billion infrastructure bill this year, pressed their case this morning before Ways and Means Committee colleagues who must approve a new funding mechanism for their massive legislation. On transport funding, a question looms: Whither Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY)? (Photo: BusinessWeek) […]

Yes, Transit Belongs in the Highway Trust Fund

|
As gas tax revenues wane, making it harder to finance a long-term transportation bill, ideas are beginning to circulate about how to save the (very poorly named) Highway Trust Fund. Some say the gas tax needs to rise. Others say fewer programs need to be financed out of the fund, which pays for all federal […]

Eno: Stop Obsessing Over the Gas Tax and Change How We Fund Transpo

|
Twenty years ago, Japan’s electoral reform redistributed power, giving urban constituencies a greater voice. One result: Japan eliminated its version of the Highway Trust Fund, which urban voters saw as satisfying the interests of the construction lobby, not their own. If city-dwellers had a greater voice in the United States, would the same thing happen? […]