Vol. 26, No. 8
The FAST Act, signed by the President on December 4, marks the beginning of the end for the Highway Trust Fund as we have known it. The $305 billion 5-year measure draws heavily on general funds (to the tune of $70 billion), and relegates to a virtual anachronism the “user pays” principle that was the philosophic foundation of the federal-aid highway program for the past 60 years.
It’s a sad but inevitable ending to what was once a bold and innovative concept to finance highway infrastructure. Without it the Interstate Highway System would not have been built. But as the mission of the federal transportation program became more diffused and its scope vastly expanded (to include highways, transit, railroads and freight in its latest authorization), it no longer makes sense for the highway users to bear the entire fiscal burden. Unwittingly, Congress has acknowledged the changed nature of the program and has made the general taxpayer assume a major portion of the cost of preserving and improving the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
Henceforth, the trend can only go in one direction —-toward an ever greater share of the program financed with general revenue. As the mission of the program becomes ever more diffused and resistance to increased motor fuel taxes continues, the rationale for maintaining the Highway Trust Fund will become harder to defend. Not that there is any great outcry over the waning role of the Trust Fund and the user fee. As reported in press, the House transportation leaders “aren’t losing sleep” over the bill’s reliance on general revenue. Nor is the transportation community shedding any tears so long as the money keeps flowing.
C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation Newsbriefs, now in its 26th year of publication.