Since 2008, the federal government has allocated $64 billion from the rest of the nation's budget to make up for the growing deficit in the State Highway Fund. The Americans for Transportation Mobility Coalition launched the Faster Better Safer campaign last week, urging Congress to address transportation funding next year.
"We need members of Congress to come back from the election, go to leadership and say 'I heard about transportation when I was at home. They're beating me up on fixing the Highway Trust Fund. They won't leave me alone on the Highway Trust Fund,'" said Janet Kavinoky, Executive Director of Transportation & Infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We need you to be as annoying as you can possible get."
Kavinoky addressed members of the North Houston Association and the Transportation Advocacy Group at a breakfast Sept. 25. While she showed support for Proposition 1—an amendment to the state's constitution that could divert $1.7 billion to transportation projects next year in Texas if it receives voter approval Nov. 4—Kavinoky asked those in attendance to consider the effects of federal transportation funding on the state's transportation problems.
"We need [Congress] to remember that we've got to get ahead of this population explosion in Texas or that commute time's going to get even longer," she said.
Kavinoky said the vast majority of the Highway Trust Fund—which provides billions of dollars annually to transportation projects across the country—comes from the gasoline tax. She said 18.4 cents per gallon goes to the HTF, a rate that has not increased since 1993.
"I'm assuming you're paying more for a cup of coffee, a bottle of water, a gallon of milk than you were in 1993," she said. "We're still paying the same amount in gas taxes."
Fewer people driving and cars becoming more fuel efficient over the years has exacerbated the funding problem, Kavinoky said, as the country needs to find another $15 billion annually to keep up with federal investment in transportation.
Kavinoky said several solutions have been considered to address the transportation funding problem, including continuing to borrow from other areas of the nation's budget or the federal government giving up on funding transportation altogether, which could force states to find another $1 billion or more every year to fund transportation projects.
However, Kavinoky said the most reasonable solution to the problem would be to raise the gasoline tax, a decision that might not be a popular one for politicians to make.
"We should increase the federal gas and diesel taxes and index them to inflation," he said. "And then we need to start looking at what we're going to do down the road as cars continue to become more fuel efficient."
Kavinoky said Congress passed a bill last July that would keep the HTF solvent until May, but there is concern that Congress may not address transportation next Spring.
"Our concern is that they're not going to look at this problem again until May," she said. "Well you know that's right in the middle of your construction season and for some up North it's right at the beginning of their very short construction season. Having that kind of uncertainty going into May is a bit of a problem. In addition, come Spring, Congress is going to be dealing with a couple of other minor little issues like the debt ceiling again."
The most likely scenario to increasing the federal gasoline tax would be for the Senate to including the increase within a larger piece of tax legislation, Kavinoky said. However, she said the House of Representatives also would need to be willing to agree with the Senate on the gasoline tax increase.
She urged the dozens of local stakeholders in attendance to speak with local members of Congress, citing the importance of transportation funding to the Texas economy and what the state's economy means for the rest of the nation.
"We're worried about the economy in the Houston region and all of that benefit it generates to the United States and whether people can move around," Kavinoky said. "Because we know mobility is correlated to economic growth. So we know we have a problem, and we think we need to solve the [HTF] problem."
For more information on the FasterBetterSafer campaign, visit www.fasterbettersafer.org.