“The Highway Trust Fund is going bankrupt, and this paid-for measure provides necessary, real reform that focuses our limited resources on critical infrastructure needs,” Mica said.
The federal gas tax — set at 18.4 cents per gallon — funded the interstate system and contributes almost $40 billion toward current highway and transit projects. But that revenue has been bolstered in recent years by $34.5 billion from general tax funds, a practice that distressed lawmakers and transportation planners who prefer the comfort of a dedicated source of money.
The gas tax was last increased in 1993, and Congress has had little interest in raising it. (Inflation has eroded the value of that 1993 tax to 11 cents.) Neither have lawmakers shown much inclination to implement a taxing system that charges drivers for the miles they travel through some sort of toll.
If Congress continues transportation spending at current levels through 2021, the Highway Trust Fund will fall between $85 billion and $115 billion short. And even if lawmakers find a new way of funding transportation to fill that gap, the spending will be far less than what is required to meet infrastructure needs.
A group co-chaired by former transportation secretaries Samuel K. Skinner and Norman Y. Mineta has estimated that an additional $134 billion to $262 billion must be spent per year through 2035 to rebuild and improve roads, rail systems and air transportation.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has projected that $1.7 trillion should be invested between now and 2020 to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the end of their planned life cycles.
The debate over programs for bikes, pedestrians and landscaping — known as enhancements — was a flash point, with each side believing that it was taking the more pragmatic and realistic approach. Cyclists and pedestrians argued that investment in riding and walking saves fuel, reduces pollution, promotes health and relieves congestion.
Opponents of the programs, largely Republicans, didn’t debate any of that but said the initiatives were a luxury in tight times when roadway repair should be given a higher priority, and they thought that states should be allowed leeway in setting spending priorities.
A deal reached among Senate leaders to freeze student-loan rates for a year will probably be packaged with the transportation measure, speeding passage through both chambers before the end of the week.