Busy highway

Highway Trust Fund Q&A

Highway Trust Fund: Questions and Answers

Background: In 1956, the federal highway program was created to build a coast-to-coast 42,000-mile network of interstate highways to connect all major cities in the country. To pay for this program the government instituted a “user fee” in the form of a federal gas tax. Once the network was completed in the mid-1980s, the highways and the fuel tax were to be handed over to the states to manage. Congress, however, grew accustomed to the influx of revenue and the spending it enabled. The program has since been periodically reauthorized through highway bills, expanding on each occasion, and today, the fuel taxes motorists, truckers, and bus drivers pay are spent on a variety of measures well beyond the scope of roads and bridges, very few of which address the actual problems facing motorists.

Status: The Highway Trust Fund has been depleted and lawmakers are now seeking $10 billion to bail it out to continue transportation spending at current unsustainable levels.

What is the Highway Trust Fund (HTF)?

The Highway Trust Fund is a federal transportation fund filled with revenue collected  from federal fuel taxes—18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel—and related fees. Congress draws from the HTF to fund a multitude of spending measures, from highways and bridges to a series of local “livability” programs to mass transit such as buses and subways.

Why is another highway bill coming up right now?

At the end of fiscal year 2014, the current federal highway bill will expire. In the meantime, however, spending out of the HTF is so disproportionate to what drivers contribute in fuel taxes that Congress is faced with having to ratchet back spending or bail out the fund at taxpayer expense. Congress is considering a $10 billion bailout that will refill the HTF temporarily and extend all transportation programs into 2015.

Why is the HTF out of money?

The current law governing the federal highway and transit programs, set in effect by the last highway bill, is called MAP-21: Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century. MAP-21 authorizes annual spending well above the revenue the HTF will collect and funds a host of parochial projects that have no business being handled at the federal level. This practice has allowed HTF expenditures to far eclipse the amount of revenue collected from fuel taxes.

One example of a trust fund spending diversion is mass transit. Transit use, which is mainly concentrated in just six cities (the municipalities of Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco), received 17 percent of total federal user fees in 2010, even though its share of the nation’s surface travel amounted to roughly 1 percent and transit users pay nothing into the HTF. Other diversions included programs such as nature trails and landscaping, environmental study and mitigation efforts, community preservation, ferry boats, and bicycle paths.

The lack of spending prioritization, coupled with egregious federal intervention into local community projects, has drained the HTF to the point of insolvency. (Past transfers from the General Fund of the Treasury have totaled over $50 billion since 2008.)

What are the current proposals to refill the HTF? Will they work?

Senators Bob Corker (R–TN) and Chris Murphy (D–CT) have proposed hiking federal gas taxes by 12 cents per gallon. This would raise the gas tax to 30.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 36.4 cents per gallon on diesel (on top of state fuel taxes).

In the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp has unveiled a $10.9 billion plan to extend transportation funding through May, 2015 that would refill the HTF through a three-fold approach:

  • Raise $6.4 billion over the next decade through “pension smoothing”—allowing companies to cut back on their payments to employees’ pension funds, thereby subjecting more profits to taxation
  • Raise $3.5 billion in 2024 by extending customs and user fees by another year (a scorekeeping gimmick that was already used in the flawed Ryan-Murray budget agreement)
  • Raise $1 billion transferring it from a fund used to clean up leaking underground storage tanks to the HTF

Neither of these proposals would make any real reforms to the way tax dollars are allocated under the current federal highway program. The Corker-Murphy gas tax hike would perpetuate a broken system at greater expense to motorists. The Camp proposal would achieve the same effect to the detriment of taxpayers in general, employing routine Congressional budget gimmicks to offset irresponsible spending measures. Finding more money for bureaucrats to waste on our behalf is not a solution.

What happens if the HTF runs out of money? Won’t the U.S. face a transportation crisis?

Gas tax revenues will still flow into the HTF and be paid out for transportation projects. The U.S. Department of Transportation would simply have to slow down payments to the states.

Lawmakers are fond of sounding the alarm bells about what will happen to the national transportation infrastructure if states have to face a reduction in federal funding. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has said states will see on average a 28 percent cut in funding from the HTF. This figure is shockingly misleading, however, as the overwhelming majority of highway funding comes from state and local governments, not the federal government. The 28 percent figure is missing context. The “crisis” reduction Obama and many Congressmen are threatening about amounts to a 7 percent cut in overall transportation spending. This will not devastate the country’s surface transportation, and states will reserve autonomy to prioritize which projects are essential and which have been forced on them by the federal government.

If Congress does not act, will the federal interstate shut down?

No. The federal interstate will be open for travel, and construction will largely continue although plans for some additional projects may be scaled back.

President Obama says reauthorization is simple: “We’re just building roads and bridges like we’ve been doing for the last, I don’t know, 50, 100 years.” What is the problem with Washington helping states with transportation decisions?

Heritage Foundation Policy Analyst Emily Goff hits the nail on the head:

Spending priorities are determined more by politicians appeasing special interests than local needs or consumer choices. And the federal regulatory burden delays projects and smothers state and private-sector innovation.

When car and truck drivers pay the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax (24.4 cents per gallon for diesel) at the pump, they expect better roads and less traffic congestion in return. Instead, Washington diverts more than 25% of that money to subways, streetcars, buses, bicycle and nature paths, and landscaping, at the expense of road and bridge projects.

This cycle of DC-centric policy choices is bad for the country’s infrastructure and abusive to the U.S. taxpayer.

Is there any opportunity for real reform?

Yes. To take away the need for periodic highway bills completely, Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) have introduced a new way forward in theTransportation Empowerment Act (H.R. 3486/S. 1702). This bill would return the highway program to local control, empower local and state governments to carry out projects that best serve their interests, and enhance the efficiency of how money is spent on the nation’s transportation.

The federal fuel tax would be reduced from 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline to 3.7 cents, and from 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel to 5 cents, over a five-year period—limiting the user fee to fund only appropriate federal activities and forcing an end to governmental waste and ineptitude.

States and localities would be free to set whatever transportation policies they deem necessary and pay for projects in a way that works best for them without the costly and cumbersome hurdles imposed by the federal government.

Call to Action: Sentinels should encourage their members of Congress to resist the business-as-usual bailout of the Highway Trust Fund. This system has been broken for far too long and the nation’s motorists have suffered as a result. Conservatives should insist that the HTF live within its means in the near-term and that Congress pass theTransportation Empowerment Act to introduce real reforms to future transportation policy.

>> Update: see the bailout vote results on our scorecard.

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Email Your Senators to Oppose the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program Reauthorization Act

This week, the Senate will vote on the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2014 (S. 2244). Introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY)Heritage ActionScorecardSen. Charles Schumer0%Senate Democrat AverageSee Full Scorecard0%, the bill would extend the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) — a temporary program passed in the aftermath the September 11th terrorist attacks — for seven years while making only minor changes to the program.

The purpose of TRIA, as stated in the 2002 legislation, was “to establish a temporary Federal program that provides for a transparent system of shared public and private compensation for insured losses resulting from acts of terrorism” to “allow for a transitional period for the private markets to stabilize.” Two years later, Heritage’s Diane Katz, a research fellow in regulatory policy, explains “insurance industry today is well-capitalized, and fully equipped with the resources necessary to provide terrorism risk coverage without government subsidies.”

Rather than beginning the long-overdue wind down to this temporary program, S. 2244 ensures taxpayers will continue to be on the hook for private sector losses that the insurance industry is well-positioned to handle.

Use the POPVOX form below to e-mail your Senators to oppose the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (S. 2244):

 

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Ex-Im Bank: “Unjustified, Inefficient Corporate Welfare”

Many Americans may not have heard of the Export-Import Bank — a fact frequently noted by the media — but the fight over whether or not to renew the Bank’s charter before it expires in September is a pivotal one in Washington this year. Politicians’ stance on the issue will serve as a litmus test for their commitment to Main Street rather than well connected special interests.

The good news, as NPR reports, is that Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is leading the charge against the Bank’s reauthorization.

With Hensarling and other top House Republican leaders ready to kill the bank, it may be difficult for the bank to get the votes it needs to stay in business.

Why are they so staunchly opposed? Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus center describes the Bank this way, and explains why anyone who really understands how the Bank works should oppose it:

We don’t agree on much in Washington. But given all of the economic and social problems our nation faces, everyone should agree that the federal government should not direct our limited public resources primarily to wealthy, politically connected corporations. This is what the Export-Import Bank does.

Some say that there are good reasons to continue doing this. They say that the bank, known as the Ex-Im Bank, promotes U.S. exports, protects jobs and is a good deal for taxpayers. None of these arguments withstand scrutiny.

And Daniel Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University agrees:

“In my camp, the Export-Import Bank has always been a prime example of unjustified, inefficient corporate welfare,” Boudreaux says. “The fact that there’s a Tea Party movement now, that’s what gives opposition to the Export-Import Bank some legs to stand on now.”

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Highway Funding: 700,000 Lost Jobs?

“All told, nearly 700,000 jobs could be at risk next year.”

That was President Obama earlier this month, urging Congress to bail out the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF).  He warned failure to act would be the equivalent of Congress laying off the “entire population of Denver, or Seattle, or Boston.”

Seriously?

A November 2013 paper by James Sherk, Senior Policy Analyst in Labor Economics at The Heritage Foundation, provides some different numbers:

“Across the U.S., just over 300,000 Americans work in highway, street, or bridge construction—less than the population of Wichita, Kansas.”

Obama’s math just doesn’t add up.

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Krauthammer: Obama’s Message Received in Central America

Charles Krauthammer got right to the heart of the immigration crisis on our Southwest border in a Washington Post column Thursday:

Why do they come? The administration pretends it’s because of violence and poverty.

Nonsense. When has there not been violence and poverty in Central America? Yet this wave of children has doubled in size in the past two years and is projected to double again by October. The new variable is Obama’s unilateral (and lawless) June 2012 order essentially legalizing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came here as children.

Message received in Central America.

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