Congress offers only temporary patch to road fund shortfall


The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is working to pave the last gravel state highway. It’s an 8-mile stretch of road that runs north from Crawford County into Washington County in Northwest Arkansas.

Actually, Arkansas 220 was originally owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but the state took over ownership and maintenance in 1998, according to a recent Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article. The department had completed a program in 1995 to pave all state highways.

The bigger problem for the department now is maintaining what it has, and that could get even more challenging if the federal Highway Trust Fund runs dry next month. That will happen unless Congress can fix the problem, and we all know how often that has been happening of late.

According to the state Highway Department’s Web site, the Arkansas highway system last year totaled 16,398 miles, which is just over 16 percent of the 100,123 miles of public roads in the state. The state mileage ranks Arkansas as the 12th largest system in the country. Problematically, Arkansas ranks 44th in total revenues available per mile for maintenance.

Keep in mind that the state department is also responsible for maintaining 7,273 state-owned bridges and regularly inspects more than 5,000 city- and county-owned bridges.

Arkansas depends heavily on federal tax dollars to maintain its roads and bridges — 45 percent of its budget in 2011.

Established by the Highway Revenue Act of 1956 to finance an accelerated highway program, including construction of the interstate highway system, the federal Highway Trust Fund receives most of its revenue from two sources. One is the federal excise tax on motor fuels known as the gas tax, and the other is taxes on truck-related items, such as trucks, trailers and truck tires.

The gas tax — 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel — has not changed since 1993. Meanwhile, fuel efficiency and inflation have worked to deplete the fund. Since 2008 Congress has shored up the fund with $55 billion in general revenues.

The current transportation bill, which expires in September, includes about $50 billion in infrastructure spending, but the gas tax brings in only about $34 billion a year. Resolving that shortfall in an election year creates a political problem for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Characteristically, they have been unable to reach an agreement because the obvious solution is to raise the gas tax. Meanwhile, state road departments have had to slow down or postpone projects at a time of year when they usually can make the most progress.

Because of the situation, state highway commissioners at their meeting last week in Little Rock directed department Director Scott Bennett to contact congressional candidates and ask what they would do to make highway funding sustainable. They will also be invited to address the commission in a special meeting. Their answers should be made available to voters.

Earlier this month the House of Representatives passed a temporary patch, which would, with smoke and mirrors, provide $10.8 billion to the Highway Trust Fund, keeping it solvent through next May. The Senate could vote this week on a similar bill.

That would allow incumbent congressmen to dodge the issue until after the election, but it would be like filling potholes with clay. More than half of the money in the package would come from allowing employers to defer payments to their employee pension plans, thus getting them to pay more in taxes.

All four of Arkansas’ congressmen voted in favor of the patch, which passed 367 to 55. A column distributed for 1st District Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, expressed thankfulness for the stopgap bill but offered no hint of a long-term solution.

Arkansas would get only $138 million from the package, Bennett told the Highway Commission last week, which would be only about 27 percent of its annual federal funding. Bennett said his agency has identified $750 million in already-approved projects that rely on federal money. Taking bids and starting each such project is risky, considering the federal cash flow problem.

The only solution to the lack of highway maintenance funds is raising taxes. Sooner or later, Congress must face that fact, or we’ll be back on gravel roads.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.