The Precarious Situation in Transportation Funding

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For all intents and purposes, the economy is on the upswing—unemployment is down, the Dow Jones Industrial average fares well on a day-to-day basis, and that telltale indicator, new-home construction, is generally on the rise. Recovering from a recession is about more than simply re-invigorating the economy, however, it’s also about re-working the corners that were cut during the lag time.

And there’s been a lot of lag time in transportation funding. The usual source for funding transportation projects is revenue collected from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and its revenue has fallen short of infrastructure expenses, as cars have become more fuel-efficient. At the current rate, and in current conditions, the gas tax creates around $34 billion in revenue each year—falling well below what’s needed to complete the considerable and necessary infrastructure upgrades.

To create a temporary fix, legislators are considering a measure to appropriate almost $11 billion to create a patch to extend transportation funding until May 2015, and would come into play as a 2012 transportation bill expires later this year. The bill accounts for nearly $50 billion per year in road and transit spending, and infrastructure advocates warn this amount will only serve to maintain the current level of U.S. highways and bridges, without funding any new projects.

Trucks account for 12-15 percent of vehicles on the road, though the industry shoulders 50 percent of the financial burden. With infrastructure falling so far behind, the return on investment has been subpar for the past several years.

“If we’re only building for the present, we are building for the past,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, said recently of the bill. “America needs more than just an incremental adjustment. We need a transportation reset, and it’s got to be big.” Secretary Foxx ended his speech on an ominous note, to underscore the consequences of not taking action: “We have no shortage of high-profile bridge collapses in this country,” he said.

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