Keep the trust in the Highway Trust Fund

In my 12 years in Washington, I've seen Congress act unwisely, indifferently, and arrogantly. But I've always felt that there were some promises Congress just would not break.

There is a movement threatening the Federal Highway Trust Fund, a fund created during the Eisenhower era to finance the national highway network. The trust fund is unique in that it lives up to its name. Financed by fuel taxes and levies on motor vehicles, the fund in turn finances the upkeep of the nation's transportation lifeline, the national highway system.

The fund is also equitable and economical. It is equitable because it is derived from those who use and benefit from Interstate highways. It is economical because it is not financed from general revenues. It is a pay-as-you-go program that, by law, must maintain a positive balance. This is one program that actually reduces the deficit, because of the requirement of a positive balance.

You would think that such a trust fund would be considered inviolate. Imagine , if you would, the universal outcry if Congress attempted to use individual retirement accounts to finance foreign aid or to build federal office buildings.

That same principle - that same trust - should apply to the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Yet there is a movement gaining momentum in Congress to abrogate this principle and pervert the fund, using it as a bank account for special-interest, parochial projects, for which senators and representatives are seeking $2 billion.

Yet another project would add $2.2 billion more to finance the depression of the Boston Central Artery freeway. This project does not qualify under the interpretations of any federal highway program. And, at a billion dollars a mile , it is phenomenally expensive, even by Washington standards. After all, it didn't cost a billion dollars a mile to go to the moon.

The cost of the Massachusetts project would totally rebuild the highway system in my home state. But there is a principle involved here that is far more important than the approval of a single pork-barrel project. We are in danger of losing the objectivity in our federal highway program. Once that objectivity has been violated, the trust fund will become a pinata; break it open and watch what spills out.

If the federal government is going to collect a fee to maintain our national bridges and highways, then money ought not be tied up for partisan, parochial projects. Disbursements of funds should be timely and follow established formulas. A raid on available capital - just because it is there - cannot be allowed if there is to be any integrity in our national highway program.

Senator Symms (R) of Idaho is chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

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