Earlier this week, Joseph Kile of the Congressional Budget Office outlined for a Senate committee the dire situation that is the Highway Trust Fund. The fund that pays for U.S. highway and transit projects — largely populated by the weak federal gas tax — will more or less run out of money by the end of fiscal 2014. Insolvency could occur as early as August, and the Department of Transportation may need to begin withholding payments to states this summer.
If the gas tax were a fuel gauge, we'd pretty much be in the red.
The good news is that lawmakers have actually started to formulate new funding plans. President Obama sent Congress a $302 billion transportation package late last month; the Senate has promised a bill sometime next week; a House appropriations committee is busy crunching numbers. The bad news is the sides already feel far apart: Obama's ambitious planlacks a politically palatable funding mechanism, the Senate more or less preserves the status quo, and the House is leaning toward pretty heavy cuts.
It's too soon to scrutinize the details of the bills, but one element of Obama's plan seems likely to endure. That's an idea to let states place tolls on their free interstate highways. Right now, states can only toll an interstate highway to pay for the construction of new lanes. The new plan would let states create tolls to pay for maintenance of a crumbling highway they have no plans to expand at all. (Three states already have such permission through a federal pilot program — Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia — but none has acted on it.)