As states from Connecticut to California scramble to find money to fix crumbling highways, Congress once again is expected this week to put a short-term patch on the nearly insolvent federal highway trust fund.
But if past spending patterns hold up, the repairs and upgrades for the roadways whisking lawmakers around the nation’s capital will enjoy generous subsidies from the rest of the 50 states, according to Transportation Department data.
For every dollar collected in federal highway gasoline taxes in fiscal 2013, the latest data available, the District of Columbia got back $8.56—the highest ratio in the country.
Most states receive more in federal highway appropriations than the fund collects every year—which is one reason it’s perpetually running on empty these days. In fiscal 2013, the fund collected $31.8 billion—mostly from the federal tax on gasoline and diesel fuel, and paid out $39.7 billion. Since 1956, according to DOT data, the fund has paid out $971.7 billion—some $138 billion more than it collected.
While most states get back more than they send to Washington, the nation’s capital is historically a big winner. Since 1956, it’s collected $4.69 for every dollar paid in by drivers in the district. Over the same period, only Alaska, which has averaged $6.08 for every dollar paid, has fared better.
The biggest losers have been Michigan (99 cents back for every dollar paid in), Indiana, North Carolina and South Carolina (98 cents each), and Texas (95 cents on the dollar).
For nearly six decades, the federal highway trust fund has been fueled largely by a tax on a federal gasoline and diesel sales, which the Transportation Department then apportions to state highway departments and other transportation agencies.
But, largely because the tax has not been raised in more than 20 years, rising construction costs have overtaken the increase in tax receipts. Adjusted for inflation, every dollar of gasoline tax collected in 2015 buys about the equivalent of 60 cents worth of roadwork in 1993, the last year the tax was raised.
Fuel tax receipts have also failed to keep up with the increased traffic on the nation’s highways. While Americans are driving more vehicle miles again since a dip during the Great Recession, fuel consumption has declined as cars and trucks have become more fuel-efficient.
The result is that America’s transportation system is falling apart, despite combined federal, state and local spending that hit $91 billion a year in 2013, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
That’s about half of what’s needed to repair and upgrade the nation’s highways, according to the Federal Highway Administration
To make up the shortfall, Congress has transferred more than $53 billion from other tax revenue over the past five years, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Last week, the House passed a bill that would kick the funding can down the highway with another $8 billion until December while lawmakers try to work out a longer-term funding plan. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is pushing for a bill that keeps the highway fund solvent through next year’s presidential election.
This week, Congress is expected to try once again to cobble together more money to keep road repair work going.
As in the past, the latest highway funding renewal bill has been stuck in a slow lane debate over issues that have nothing to do with potholes. Much of the haggling has involved efforts to revive to the recently expired Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that helps companies finance sales of products to foreign buyers of U.S. goods and services.
Last year, Congress cobbled together a short-term patch that included a provision to let pension fund managers “smooth” out the accounting for volatile investment returns, a move that saved U.S. companies an estimated $51 billion in pension contributions, according to analysts at Moodys.
The thornier problem—one that has stalled a permanent highway funding fix for years—is a perennial roadblock over where to find the money.
After a massive federal stimulus program wound down in 2011, states have been unable to count on a long-term, reliable funding plan from Washington. Since 2009, federal lawmakers have passed 34 short-term extensions to keep transportation programs from running out of money, according to the Associated Press.
This year, lawmakers face a July 31 deadline to renew federal spending authority for transportation programs, without which the Transportation Department can’t reimburse states for billions of dollars in road projects, many of which are already underway.
Congress will also need to refresh the dwindling trust fund’s balance, which is expected to fall below $4 billion by the end of the month. At that point, DOT officials say, they’re pretty much running on empty, and some payments back to the states may have to be cut off.
While Congress continues to scrounge for additional sources of funding, one thing seems clear. No one is even talking about raising the tax on motor fuel.
“Read my lips,” McConnell told reporters Monday. “We’re not raising the gas tax.”
By John W. Schoen