By Ethan Knecht
Arguably, it is the most important issue Americans never think about. Without it, Walmart, health care, public education, family vacations, Amazon.com, broadband internet, and even America’s national security would be in jeopardy. The Unite States’ interstate highways connect every corner of the country from Madawaska, Maine to Imperial Beach, California, and every town in-between, freeing people and goods to move quickly and easily across the third largest country in the world. Without all 46,876 miles of road, ambulances and supplies wouldn’t be able to get to hospitals, Cards Against Humanity would not be able to persuade people to buy land on the US-Mexican border, and families would not be able to visit Grandma in South Dakota for Thanksgiving. But if Americans are not careful, the whole system could fall apart, due to budget shortfalls and congressional inaction.
Concrete Isn’t Free
Contrary to popular opinion, America’s interstate system did not begin under President Eisenhower, nor was it inspired by great European highways like the German Autobahn. Rather, before Eisenhower, laying concrete between states was longstanding and All-American.
America’s interstate highways began with private thoroughfares like the Lincoln Highway in 1913, and continued in the 1930s and 1940s with designs for a publicly owned system from federal bureaucrats like Bureau of Public Roads Commissioner Thomas MacDonald. But the concept of a national network of roads consistently ran into a roadblock: reliable funding. The official establishment of a national interstate system launched under President Roosevelt with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, and mild funding for the system continued under President Truman with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952. States had begun to plan for the system by building their own toll roads, like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that they imagined would eventually become part of a larger interstate system, but were largely unable to build the freeways (non-toll roads) that the American people expected.
President Eisenhower’s contribution, which his legacy would be defined by, was the simple act of compelling a bipartisan effort to secure funding to finish the system. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 allocated the reliable funding transportation experts had argued an interstate network required to be built and maintained. It launched the completion of the system with an additional $25 billion in funding, and contained an important clause that would shape and support the system for decades to come: the Highway Trust Fund (HTF).
With the HTF, a direct funding source for the construction and repair of America’s federal highways was established. A gas tax directly paid into the fund, currently 18.4¢ for gasoline and 24.4¢ for diesel, from which the federal government could withdraw money so that only the users of the highway system would pay for it. The system seemed infallible, as long as Congress properly functioned to accurately fund it.
Driving Away America’s Common Cents
America’s roads, along with the rest of its infrastructure, are crumbling, receiving a D from the American Society of Civilian Engineers. To make matters worse, the Highway Trust Fund, which is charged with fixing America’s roads, is running on fumes. Due in part to fuel efficient cars that use less gas per mile, Americans are consuming fewer gallons of gas relative to the miles they drive than they did 60 years ago. And Congress has not raised the gas tax for 24 years, meaning the current tax of 18.4¢ would be closer to 31¢ if adjusted for inflation.
This has left HTF in a financially unsustainable position. Since 2008, Congress has appropriated $143 billion in general funds to sustain the fund in place of finding a long-term solution. And the Congressional Budget Office projects the fund will be completely depleted by 2021. If the Federal Government does not act quickly, America’s roads will escalate their descent into disrepair.
Making the Trust Fund Great Again
While Congress is divided on health care, immigration, and tax reform, fixing the HTF could be one area where significant legislative compromise could be made. Democrats have proposed raising the gas tax for years, and have come close to consensus with top Republicans like Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-SD). More recently, the White House has signaled that it would be interested in raising the tax, possibly by 7 cents. Some have argued that the system should transition to a system that taxes based off of miles driven, rather than gallons of gas consumed, and proposals supported at the state-level by the Department of Transportation could quell concerns of conservatives like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI). Whatever proposal is considered, there is beginning to be considerable appetite for HTF reform.
The Highway Trust Fund was originally a product of bipartisan consensus, passed by a vote of 89-1 in the Senate and 388-19 in the House. As a pressing issue that affects every American’s life in countless ways, it might just prove to be the foundation for future bipartisan cooperation.
Ethan Knecht is a sophomore in the SFS studying international politics, who writes about non-financial domestic issues, such as transportation, education, and healthcare.