Editorial: Long-term fix needed for highway fund
The Federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for about $150 million worth of road repairs and transportation projects in New Hampshire each year, is slated to run out of money on Aug. 1.
The fund, which is filled with a per-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel that hasn’t increased since 1993, can’t keep up with the need to maintain America’s aged infrastructure. Today’s vehicles use less fuel and people are driving less. Tomorrow’s vehicles will be even more energy efficient. As a source of funding, fuel taxes will continue to dry up.
Members of this historically dysfunctional Congress have returned from the parades and fireworks and taken up their partisan positions. If they don’t find a way to fill the hole in the highway fund soon, infrastructure projects in every state will stall at the height of the construction season. Employees will be laid off, the economy will slow and faith in the ability of government to function will diminish even further.
The impending shortfall is already having an effect in New Hampshire. Late last month, the state Department of Transportation notified communities, as well as contractors hoping to bid on road and bridge projects, that it was delaying about $25 million in work scheduled for next year. Projects like the repaving of Loudon Road could be put off. The decrepit Sewalls Falls Bridge could continue to disintegrate. In Somersworth, sidewalks removed during a Main Street improvement project may not be replaced before winter.
Every member of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation has pledged to look for a $5 billion patch that will keep the pavers paving, but no proposal has majority support. A bipartisan plan put forward by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut calls for raised federal fuel taxes by 12 cents over the next two years with future increases indexed for inflation. Their idea finds favor with those who believe that the nation’s transportation system should be paid for solely with user fees, but no fuel tax increase is passable in this poisonous pre-election period.
Rep. Ann Kuster has proposed coming up with $5 billion by eliminating a redundant catfish inspection program, forcing federal agencies to close old bank accounts and other measures. House Speaker John Boehner wants to get the money by eliminating Saturday mail delivery. Sen. President Harry Reid would give a one-time tax break to companies that repatriate money held abroad. The Obama administration proposes closing business tax loopholes. Congress will have to settle on one short-term gimmick or another or thousands of projects will be idled.
Ideally after the election or more likely after new members take their seats, Congress should settle on a fair, logical and sustainable way to restore a national transportation system that was once the envy of the world. The answer shouldn’t be ever-higher fuel taxes, or even the fee per-mile-traveled system Oregon is testing. The nation’s transportation system benefits everyone, whether they use it or not.
We’d like to see members of New Hampshire’s delegation put innovative, long-term solutions on the table. Eliminating tax credits and other subsidies the oil industry has enjoyed since the wildcat era makes sense.
The companies are wildly profitable and don’t need or deserve tax breaks that have outlived their usefulness.
Similarly, the government should start charging market, rather than bargain-basement, rates for coal and mineral resources mined on federal lands. The gold belongs to the public and shouldn’t be free for the taking. The money to repair the nation’s infrastructure is there. It just has to be pried out of the hands of the lobbyists.