Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

Opinion

June 20, 2014

OUR VIEW: One way or another, we’ll pay for roads

GLASGOW — Would you rather pay more for gasoline or drive on poorer roads? Unless a suitable alternative to a looming crisis is developed soon, we might be forced to choose an answer.

For decades, the federal Highway Trust Fund has helped pay for construction and repair projects on roads and bridges around the nation. The fund is sourced by the federal gas tax, which – believe it or not – has not budged from 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. That’s 21 years of diminishing returns, due mostly to two factors: there has been no adjustment for inflation and motorists are driving less (and doing so in more fuel-efficient vehicles) as oil prices have risen.

So, the fund – which doles out billions each year to the states, which rely on the money to reimburse contractors – is forecast to hit zero perhaps as soon as August. Once that happens, road work halts. Contractors are unlikely to continue toiling on projects if they have no idea whether they will be paid.

It’s a conundrum that lacks an obvious solution, which is why lawmakers have spent a few years essentially kicking the can. Congress has pilfered billions from the nation’s general funds since the late 2000s in order to keep the highway fund afloat, but that tactic doesn’t have a long shelf life. Meanwhile, some U.S. senators are considering offering a one-time tax break to corporations that bring profits held overseas back to the U.S., which could result in a hefty payday for the fund – but eventually the coffers will drain again.

Other ideas of varying degrees of feasibility have been floated, but in order to establish a consistent long-term funding source, all roads – whether they are smooth and strong or cracked and crumbling – seem to ultimately lead toward the specter of gas taxes. While some push for what they consider an overdue update to the federal gas tax, others want the states to carry greater financial responsibility for their roads. A few states have done so, mostly by – surprise – raising state gas taxes.

There might be no worse time in the nation’s history to try to convince Americans to pay more at the pump. On the other hand, U.S. economies big and small, local and national, depend on sturdy infrastructure. Nothing good comes from letting the highway fund constantly flirt with bankruptcy.

This is a rapidly approaching problem and Americans must brace for the impact. We don’t know the answer, but we do know this: One way or another, something’s going to give. And one way or another, we’ll be the ones doing the giving.

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