The federal kitty used to fix and build highways runs dry in August. It will be the second time in two years that the Highway Trust Fund, which was started in 1956 to build the Interstate system, hasn't collected enough gas-tax revenues to pay for critical needs in transport.
The reasons for the money shortfall are simple: With Americans driving less in a recession and also buying more-fuel-efficient vehicles, revenues from the gas tax are down. And it doesn't help that the federal fee of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn't been raised since 1993, despite inflation and more transport projects.
During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama refused to endorse a gas-tax hike – and he still does. He sees it as adding a burden on the middle class and poor who must drive. But his argument weakened in recent days when he reversed himself on another campaign promise of not seeking a tax on employer-paid health benefits.
With the trust fund needing some $17 billion by September 2010, Mr. Obama should not let Congress again simply transfer that amount of money from general revenues to make up for the shortfall, as it did last year.
The US transport system is based on the concept of users paying for this government service. (The 2009 economic stimulus money that is designated for transport cannot be used by most states to make up for deficits in highway spending.) A user fee that generates a set amount of revenue also helps keep lawmakers from adding endless "earmarks" for pet transport projects in their districts.
A temporary revenue fix is also inappropriate because the law that authorizes the five-year US highway program expires Oct. 1. Congress is revving up to greatly alter the way that Americans get around.
The House plans to dramatically increase the program's spending from $286 billion to $450 billion. And a Senate bill would, for instance, require a total reduction in per capita motor vehicle miles traveled. It would also require that carbon dioxide emissions from surface transport be cut by 40 percent by 2030. And less of the nation's freight would be able to be carried by truck.
Obama's transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, even wants to get more Americans out of their cars. "We have to create opportunities for people that do want to use a bicycle or want to walk or want to get on a streetcar or want to ride a light rail," he says.
Such fresh thinking about the future of transport also requires fresh thinking on how to finance it. For now, that includes raising the gas tax as well as indexing it to inflation, although eventually government – both federal and state – will need to find other revenues from transport users.
Two recent commissions set up by Congress ask for immediate increases in the gas tax – one of them sought a 40-cent hike. But experts also point to other money sources as more vehicles, especially electric ones, use less gas.
One idea is to tax vehicles by miles driven. Oregon has had success in testing this method, although it raises privacy issues and critics say it penalizes those who buy fuel-efficient vehicles. And such a system would take years to implement.
In the meantime, Americans are stuck with raising the gas tax, as unpleasant as that might be.
It's time for the president to back it.