The Washington Post

New USDOT toy isn’t the fun kind

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx  (Win McNamee/Getty Images) U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx  (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The federal government has a new toy that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx hopes will get your attention. It’s not a fun toy, but in the end you’re going to pay for it so the man has a point.

It’s a monthly update that, yawn, shows how fast the Highway Trust Fund is running out of money. Dr. Gridlock is going to make this real simple in a quest for keeping his audience, even though transportation wonks will bristle at us glossing over all the nuance that is their bread and butter.

1) The Highway Trust Fund is what pays for roads, bridges and transit. About half the money states spend on those things comes from Washington.

2) Most of the fund comes from the federal gas tax, a tax that too few people know exists. State gas tax? Yes. Federal gas tax, is there really one? Yes, it’s 18.4 cents per gallon, and it hasn’t gone up since 1993.

3) The trust fund is running out of money because you’re not driving a car (unless it’s a Hummer) that gets 12 mpg anymore. The government wants cars and SUVs to get 54.5 mpg by 2025. The gas tax is doomed.

Who is going to pay for roads, bridges and transit in the future? You are. With mid-term elections looming, few people in Washington are ready to lead a charge for something you’re not going to be happy with. This week in Washington has been a bipartisan chorus of “everything’s on the table,” which is another way of saying let somebody else go out on the limb first.

So, it sounds like you get to vote, and here are your options:

1) Raise the gas tax — some say by 10 cents a gallon — and index it so that it goes up with inflation.

2) Shift the tax from the pump to the refinery, so that Big Oil pays. But there’s no free lunch. That get’s passed on to you in a skinny minute.

3) Make another multi-billion dollar contribution from the tax dollars you pay into the general fund to keep the Highway Trust Fund afloat. (Hardly anybody likes this option.)

4) Let companies like Apple who have been socking away profits made outside the United States in foreign banks bring the money home at a lower tax rate with the proviso that the tax money goes to roads, bridges and transit.

5) Corporate tax reform, which is a little bit of No. 3 with some sweeteners thrown in to get the ball rolling.

Foxx likes No. 5, but says he’s open to whatever Congress wants. Congress has some ideas, but no agreement on anything just yet, and House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is one of the many who says “everything’s on the table.”

But Foxx wants you to know: “The Highway Trust Fund will start bouncing checks as soon as August.”

Not chump-change checks either, the billion dollar kind.

“Starting today, we’re going to post on our website exactly how much money the Highway Trust Fund has left – and update that number every month until the fund runs out, or until it can sustain itself,” he said this week. “Now, this is a number we share with Congress. But the American people need to know it, too, because they are the ones who use America’s transportation system – and they are the ones who will travel slower and less safely if it isn’t funded.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.



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