A Requiem for the Highway Trust Fund

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),andrelegates to a virtual anachronism the "user pays" principle thatwas 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 itthe 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 includehighways, 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 andhas made the general taxpayer assume a major portion of the cost ofpreserving and improving thenation's transportation infrastructure.

Henceforth, the trendcan only go in one direction ----toward an ever greater share of the program financedwith general revenue. As the mission of theprogram becomes ever more diffused and resistance to increased motor fuel taxes continues, the rationale for maintainingthe Highway Trust Fund will becomeharder to defend. Not thatthere is any great outcry over the waning role of the Trust Fund and the user fee. As reported in press,  the House transportationleaders "aren't losing sleep" over the bill'sreliance on general revenue. Nor isthe transportation community shedding any tears so long as the money keeps flowing.

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