The Highway Trust Fund, which sends states and local governments money for transportation projects, will go bankrupt by the end of July. On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee met to work through different proposals for addressing the trust fund shortfall.
For decades, the federal Highway Trust Fund has provided state and local governments with funding to build and maintain critical highway, bridge, and transit projects. Over the next ten years, the trust fund will need $170 billion to remain solvent.
The stakes are high. More than 112,000 current highway and public transportation projects and 700,000 jobs rely on money from the Highway Trust Fund. Unfortunately, Republican committee members chose to advance unrelated and harmful policy proposals:
1. Let states ignore civil rights and environmental protections and wage standards: Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) proposes to allow states to opt out of civil rights protections, prevailing wage standards for construction workers, and environmental review requirements under the banner of “devolution.” This proposal would also allow states to use money currently dedicated to public transportation for highway projects, which would reduce transportation choice, particularly for families who rely on transit to access their jobs, schools, and doctors. This proposal would do nothing to solve the funding problem facing the trust fund.
2. Expand oil and gas drilling and take money from energy-efficient cars: Sen. John Thune (R-SD) proposes to make every oilman’s dreams come true by opening up vast stretches of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas companies, which risks harming fisheries and speeding sea level rise. At the same time, Thune calls for eliminating the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program that supports the production of clear and more energy-efficient vehicles.
3. Take away a lifeline from unemployed, disabled workers: Sen. John Thune (R-SD) proposes to weaken two vital social insurance programs and discourage people with disabilities from working by eliminating Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for disabled workers who receive Unemployment Insurance (UI). People with significant disabilities who receive SSDI are encouraged to work if they are able and can earn up to $1,070 per month while still receiving benefits. And just like all other workers, if they lose a job through no fault of their own, they may qualify for UI to replace some of their lost income. For decades, it has been the position of Congress and the federal courts that it is appropriate and consistent for workers to receive both types of assistance if they meet the requirements for both programs. Fewer than one percent of SSDI beneficiaries receive UI, but the benefits are a lifeline to the workers who receive them.
4. Eliminate support for children: Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) proposes eliminating the refundable Child Tax Credit for children who were born in the United States and are citizens simply because their parents happen to be undocumented. The purpose of this tax credit is to ensure that children in low-income families have the financial support needed to lift them out of poverty or off the margins.
5. Take money from bicycle, pedestrian, and child safety: Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) calls for prohibiting states from using Highway Trust Fund dollars for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), which provides dedicated money for projects that support bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure as well as improvements that achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This includes bike lanes, sidewalks, traffic calming techniques, and projects that provide a safe route to school for children. TAP funds are only 2 percent of the annual highway budget. It would take 64 years to replace the country’s structurally deficient bridges using only TAP funds. Moreover, effectively eliminating this program would not raise any new money.
One good one: Amid all the harmful Republican ideas, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) has stepped up with a proposal to raise the gas tax from its current level of 18.4 cents a gallon — last raised in 1993 — by four cents a year until it reaches 30 cents a gallon. As a complement to this proposal, Sens. Enzi and Carper have sponsored a proposal to index the gas tax to the Consumer Price Index, which would help ensure that the increased gas tax keeps pace with inflation in the future. In addition to these efforts, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) joined with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) to call for increasing the tax by 12 cents over two years and then indexing it to inflation. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the trust fund will need approximately $16 billion a year over the next ten years. Depending on driving levels, a one penny increase in the gas tax brings in between $1.5 and $1.8 billion. Thus, a 12-cent increase would provide between $18 and $22 billion each year.