The number of miles traveled by Americans has declined for the eleventh straight month, and that continues to have an adverse effect on the federal Highway Trust Fund.
Despite the decline, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and other highway user groups believe fuel taxes are still the fairest way for motorists and truckers to pay for highways and bridges, as long as the federal and state governments refrain from spending the funds on projects that have nothing to do with highways.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced on Wednesday, Nov. 19, that Americans drove 4.4 percent fewer miles in September 2008 than in September 2007.
As a result of the decline, the Highway Trust Fund that relies on federal fuel taxes has taken a $3 billion hit.
Peters said highway users paid $31 billion into the Highway Trust Fund from October 2007 to September 2008, a decrease of $3 billion compared to the previous year.
“Our current approach has us encouraging Americans to change their driving habits and burn less fuel while secretly hoping they drive more so we can finance new bridges, repair interstates and expand transit systems,” Peters stated in a news release.
Peters, who is winding down as transportation secretary under the Bush administration, called for “a new approach that complements, instead of contradicts, our energy policies and infrastructure needs.”
Peters has spent much of her term pushing for tolling, congestion pricing and the privatization of infrastructure to fund transportation needs.
OOIDA and other highway user groups have not bought into the hype about leasing or selling public infrastructure to the private sector.
“We clearly recognize where the hole in the Trust Fund is, and you won’t fix the problem by simply ignoring the hole,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer told Land Line.
Spencer said the U.S. has seen the Trust Fund strapped for cash on other occasions.
“It’s not like we haven’t seen it before. It is a reflection of the broader economy and what the administration is once again proposing with their press release is to convert our highways into toll roads – to put them up for sale as if they were on eBay,” he said. “We reject that idea.”
Spencer said truckers believe the Highway Trust Fund and the fuel tax will be sustainable for several more years.
“We understand that we need to look at the fuel taxes that are collected on highways, and we are open to increases in those taxes, provided that they are tied directly to highways and bridges,” Spencer said.
Eventually, highway users could be asked to pay their taxes by vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, rather than by the gallons of fuel they consume.
“We think ultimately VMT is where the highway funding issue will have to go, but the capabilities to do that aren’t fully developed yet,” Spencer said.
– By David Tanner, staff writer