Highway Trust Fund depletes, gas tax could increase


Highway Trust Fund depletes, gas tax could increase

BOZEMAN, Mont. - It's a mad scramble to keep federal money flowing for highways, bridges and other structures. On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. House passed an almost $11 billion bill to keep the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent.

The Trust Fund is predicted to run out of money by the end of August. It pays for construction, maintenance, and operation of roads and infrastructure like bridges.

We found out the money comes from a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon and a diesel tax of 24.4 cents per gallon. The problem -- those taxes have not changed since 1993.

If the fund runs dry, the U.S. Department of Transportation would have to cut federal reimbursements to states as soon as next month.

In Montana, about 60 percent of funding for highway projects comes from federal funding, much higher than many other states. That means road construction projects the state has planned for next year might be cut or delayed, and could mean a loss of up to 10,000 road construction jobs. Funding for local transit systems could also be cut.

The federal gas tax hasn't been raised in more than two decades. The last time that particular tax went up, the average price of a gallon of gas hovered around $1.10 a gallon.

Alan Baker pumped gas at a station in Bozeman, on his way home to Portland, Oregon. He said he is not excited about anything that would raise the price he pays at the pump.

"I would not be a happy camper," he said. "I think we're paying enough already."

But as the money in the Highway Trust Fund dwindles, lawmakers are trying to find a way to keep it funded. The gas tax is just one option.

"There are lots of conversations at the federal level," explained Montana Department of Transportation Planning Administrator Lynn Zanto, "as well as looking at are there other revenue generating mechanisms."

According to a report by ITS International, the federal gas tax has been the traditional source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund, but currently covers a little more than two-thirds of the $50 billion a year spent. The goal is to find a way to make up the $16 billion difference.

Other ideas include adding toll roads or taxing drivers based on the miles they drive.

"It won't work in Montana because of our low population," Zanto said.

Zanto explained those ideas might work for some states, but it is not a viable solution for Montana with the state's sparse population and rural communities.

"It's a very urban-centric mechanism for raising revenue," said Zanto.

Bozeman resident Tom McGuane agreed, explaining, "I would be against that because, in many senses if you drive more miles, you are already paying more highway tax through your gas purchases."

Zanto said we need to find a way to pay for our roads and bridges before the money runs out.

"I think our public takes highways for granted because we keep them in pretty good shape, but operating and maintaining it is dependent on the fuel tax," she said.

We reached out to Representative Steve Daines and Senator John Walsh.

Walsh responded, "Now is the time to invest in and upgrade our aging infrastructure to make America's roads and bridges safer, as well as put thousands of Americans back to work."

Daines released a statement saying he "will continue to work toward a long-term solution for the Trust Fund that does not raise the gas tax."

The last time a highway bill was passed was in 2012.  The government estimates 65 percent of U.S. roads are in "less-than-good" condition.

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