Transportation fund almost empty

Posted Thursday, Jul. 03, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The fractured U.S. Congress is making the Texas Legislature look like a bunch of wise thinkers and efficient spenders on transportation funding.

Not that Texas is doing all that great, but Congress is doing what has become its habit on many important matters lately: Nothing.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has sent a letter to states saying their federal funding will be cut back next month because Congress has not come even close to an agreement on restoring the rapidly disappearing Highway Trust Fund.

The funding cuts will average 28 percent, a huge portion of the money that supports highway construction, transit projects and road and bridge repair.

There’s still time for federal lawmakers to act to restore funding. But Congress has only 16 working days on its calendar this month and then won’t be back in session until Sept. 8.

The Transportation Department says the Highway Trust Fund’s balance will hit zero by late August.

Revenue hasn’t kept up with expenses since 2008. That’s because the primary source of revenue, the motor fuels tax, hasn’t been changed since 1993.

Inflation has chewed away at the buying power of the per-gallon tax while improvements in fuel efficiency have reduced per-vehicle usage.

Congress has refused to face the problem, instead shoring up the trust fund with more than $50 billion from the federal treasury.

Budget writers are running out of places to get that money from, at least places that get support from a majority of lawmakers.

A Democratic plan to take $9 billion out of thin air for a temporary fix failed, as did a Republican plan to make it up by cutting Saturday mail delivery.

President Barack Obama wants to close corporate tax loopholes. Guess how much support that’s getting.

So it’s stalemate on Capitol Hill. At least it’s a familiar place for a stalemate.

Meanwhile, Texas has its own problems coming up with money for transportation, but at least state legislators were able to agree on a plan — although not a total solution — last year.

Not that they took really brave steps, exactly. They’re asking voters to decide in November whether to dedicate certain funds to transportation that otherwise would go into the state’s rainy day savings account.

Voter approval of a proposed constitutional amendment would devote an estimated $878.6 million to be spent on public, non-tolled roadways next year.

The current, two-year state budget appropriates $22.1 billion to the Texas Department of Transportation, a 17.2 percent increase from 2012-2013 spending levels.

The department’s largest source of revenue is the state motor fuels tax. The Legislature last raised the tax in 1991, which means its buying power has suffered much the same as the federal tax.

And, as in Congress, proposals to raise the gas tax have been non-starters in the Legislature.

Lawmakers did make headway last year in protecting the State Highway Fund from reductions dedicated to agencies not directly involved in developing and maintaining roads.

State budget documents show that about 90 percent of State Highway Fund money in the current budget goes to the transportation department, up about 5 percent from the previous budget.

Lawmakers are already talking about ending all State Highway Fund “diversions” during the session that starts in January — but they’ve said that before. The problem always is where else to get the money to support other agencies.

Previously, state transportation officials have said they need about $4 billion a year more than they are getting just to keep up with current roadway construction.

Voter approval of the constitutional amendment in November and other measures being discussed on behalf of transportation funding will get only partway there.

And unless Congress solves the federal funding problem, the picture will be even worse.

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