Transportation Report: Highway Trust Fund on verge of bankruptcy

As economic stimulus funding makes its way into our communities, thousands of transportation projects are breaking ground across the county.

Tens of thousands of men and women are heading back to work, and billions of dollars are flowing into our local economies.

Our efforts to rebuild our infrastructure and boost our economy are working, and we need to continue investing in our country’s infrastructure. But these efforts are threatened by the impending bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund.

If we don’t step up to the plate and provide the Trust Fund with an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion before August of this year, transportation projects across the country may screech to a halt, state budgets will be thrown into crisis, and thousands upon thousands of family-wage jobs will be put in jeopardy.

In addition, the Highway Trust Fund needs another $8 billion to $10 billion in order to support our transportation programs through fiscal 2010. The next fiscal year begins in just three short months, and during one of those months, members of Congress will be working in their home states. This schedule leaves very little time for enacting legislation to save the Highway Trust Fund.

At the same time, the Appropriations Committee will be writing the bill to provide funding for transportation programs for fiscal year 2010. Unless there are balances in the Highway Trust Fund to support these funding levels, we have not really fixed the problem.

As chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, I believe strongly that we cannot let this impending shortfall materialize. The stakes are just too high for our states, our families and our commuters.

We went through this situation last year, and back then I introduced legislation that bolstered the Trust Fund and averted a crisis.

I had been sounding the alarm for years about the financial crisis facing the Highway Trust Fund, and was glad that after consistently blocking every attempt to solve the problem, the Bush administration finally owned up to the urgent need and worked with us to replace $8 billion that had been taken out of the system 20 years ago.

I included this short-term solution on the Transportation Appropriations bill, and I supported the bill that the president signed into law.

What I said back then was that while we needed a short-term fix to make good on our promises, we also need to start examining long-term changes to the Trust Fund that make it sustainable and prevent us from having to avert crises again and again.

The Highway Trust Fund was created in 1956 to supply our country with a protected account dedicated to building the Interstate highway system. The system has served our country effectively for decades.

The Trust Fund has offered states the predictability and consistency they deserve, and it has allowed them to plan their transportation spending with confidence. Transportation investments require a great deal of analysis and planning, and our states and communities must have a stable source of funding.

The Trust Fund was built on the premise that transportation programs should be sustained by the people who use them, and not the general taxpayer. This has created a stable system that deserves protecting.

However, after more than 50 years of heavy reliance on gas taxes to finance the Trust Fund, the time has come for a new approach.

With the technological advancements of the last 50 years, a greater consciousness of the environmental impact of auto emissions, and the rising cost of oil, transportation decisions made by American families and businesses continue to evolve.

Americans are driving cars that are more fuel-efficient. And last year, as gas prices skyrocketed, families cut back on their driving and tax revenue plummeted.

Also, as we work to reduce our reliance on foreign oil by supporting clean-energy technology and higher emissions standards, we are doing even more to push down gas tax revenue.

Our model for funding transportation is outdated, and it is not a sustainable system. As Congress looks to reauthorize our surface transportation policies and programs this year, modernizing our system for financing transportation investment will be integral to ensuring a safe and efficient transportation infrastructure over the long term.

The Trust Fund needs a dedicated source of revenue to be self-sustaining in order to protect the stability of our transportation programs, and to ensure that we can provide these stable funding levels without threatening our other priorities.

Finding a solution will require a strong bipartisan, bicameral commitment in Congress to work with the administration to explore all possible remedies.

Inaction is not an option. We need to save the Trust Fund this summer, and we need to work together to put in place a long-term, sustainable system for financing surface transportation investments in the future.

Murray is chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee.