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Will Looming Debt Issues Penetrate the Federal Transportation Debate?

The New York Times ran a fascinating article earlier this week concerning looming federal debt issues. I’ll let the article do most of the talking, but the general rub is that federal debt payments will jump substantially in the coming years--and this has very real consequences for how and what government funds.

Without a doubt, those consequences will reverberate across every policy field. But, as an infrastructure and development researcher, I’m going to focus here on what that debt service means regarding the biggest issue in my orbit: the coming federal surface transportation authorization.

Historically, the federal government utilized the gas tax--essentially a user fee--to generate all of the revenue for the federal surface program. This made the program a self-sustaining one.

However, two critical events have changed that course in the past two years. First, ever-rising obligations outpaced gas tax collections and forced the federal government to twice infuse the highway trust fund with general fund revenues. In other words: Ttransportation no longer pays for itself. Second, February’s stimulus act infused USDOT’s highway and transit programs with over $37 billion in general fund revenues. Again, borrowed dollars.

Unfortunately, the major reform ideas are all mum on one front: funding. This ranged from House Leadership’s stated goal to label the next authorization a "jobs bill" to Senator Durbin’s proposal to front-load the transportation authorization. And the only "complete" plan for authorization, House T&I Chairman Oberstar’s $500 billion proposal, contains no funding specifics.

The two trust fund infusions clearly show the system is broke, but where is the additional money going to come from? Until transportation leaders get serious about funding shortfalls the transportation program will continue to operate as a funding drain rather than a sustainable operation.

Roping it all back to the Times’ reporting, this isn’t the leadership the country needs now. The country needs programs, especially as large as surface transportation, to do their part in addressing the looming debt burden. Thus, our transportation leaders must get serious about considering the various revenue-raising alternatives, be they the gas tax, vehicle miles traveled fees, more tolling, or something else.

It’s time to return the transportation program to a model of self-sustainability because it is no longer just an imperative for the transportation program--the entire federal government needs this type of fiscal leadership.