Murray: 'Threat is growing' of Highway Trust Fund bankruptcy

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The Senate Democrats' top budget writer said Tuesday that the “threat is growing” of a bankruptcy in the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) took the Senate floor to warn lawmakers of the consequences of allowing the fund normally used to pay for road and transit projects to run out of money this year.

“Mr. President, since the mid-1950s, our nation has relied on the Highway Trust Fund to support transportation projects — projects that create jobs and keep our economy moving,” Murray said.

“But as soon as July, just a few months from now, the Department of Transportation predicts the Highway Trust Fund will reach a critically low level,” she continued. “If this isn’t resolved, construction projects to improve our roads and bridges could shut down and leave workers without a paycheck.”

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The Highway Trust Fund’s coffers are normally filled by revenue collected through the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and infrastructure expenses have outpaced receipts from the fuel levy by as much as $20 billion per year recently.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that the trust fund will go bankrupt in the fall without additional congressional action.

The budget office and infrastructure advocates have said lawmakers will have to approve an additional $100 billion above to provide enough money to fund a six-year transportation bill, in addition to the $34 billion brought in annually by the gas tax.

Lawmakers are also facing a Sept. 30 deadline for renewing the federal government’s authorization to collect the gas tax at all.

Murray said Tuesday that states were already being impacted by the transportation funding uncertainty.

“We’re already seeing some consequences from this crisis,” the Washington Democrat said. “In Arkansas, 10 construction projects, like building highway connections and replacing bridges, have already been put on hold. In Colorado, the state wants to widen a major highway to ease congestion between Denver and Fort Collins. But officials there say with the funding shortage in the Highway Trust Fund, that project could be delayed.”

Murray said the examples she cited “aren’t isolated cases."

“More states, from Vermont to California, might have to stop construction in its tracks because of the Highway Trust Fund shortfall,” she said. 

Murray voiced support for proposals from President Obama and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) to supplement the gas tax revenue with more than $125 billion from closing corporate tax loopholes.

“Since the Highway Trust Fund’s inception under Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republicans and Democrats have come together to invest in this national priority,” Murray said. “Under Democratic and Republican presidencies, from President Kennedy to President Reagan to President Clinton, we’ve updated and supported the Highway Trust Fund.”