What is the Highway Trust Fund without trust?

| 8/4/2009

Truckers are demanding that the “trust” be put back into the Highway Trust Fund in the aftermath of a federal report, which revealed that $78 billion was spent on things other than highways.

From 2004 through 2008, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s four main agencies spent the money on programs marked for safety, transit, metro planning and transportation enhancements, which included trails, pedestrian walkways, bike lanes and parking, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The GAO issued the report in response to inquiries about highway spending posed by Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK.

While DOT officials say the spending was authorized and above board as part of the transportation law known as SAFETEA-LU, non-highway spending inched close to 32 percent of the $244.1 billion allotted to the DOT.

The Highway Trust Fund pays for programs in four DOT agencies: the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

In a review of the agencies, GAO researchers determined that the FHWA spent $28 billion of its $195 billion allotment “for purposes other than construction and maintenance of highways and bridges in accordance with its mission.” That’s about 14 percent.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, representing nearly 160,000 truckers, says highway dollars should be spent on highways and not on bike paths and beautification.

“It is those diversions that undermine the total program,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer told Land Line.

“As this program has grown through the years, diversions have played a greater and greater role,” said Spencer. “We’re not saying that all of the projects aren’t worthwhile. Some certainly are, but they can’t be funded with highway and bridge dollars while our highways and bridges crumble.”

The Highway Trust Fund was created in 1956 and funded primarily through fuel taxes and other highway user fees.

Truckers pay 36 percent of the money going into the Highway Trust Fund while making up 7 percent of traffic.

Spencer said there comes a point where the formula for enhancements and diversion has to be acknowledged as fraud or at least flawed.

“We’re there now, and the integrity of the whole Highway Trust Fund is blown away by the diversion. That’s what lawmakers must address if they hope to regain the support of the highway user community,” Spencer said. “They have to put the trust back in the Trust Fund.”

Diversion is one of the reasons why truckers don’t like hearing about proposed tax increases.

“The talk is always about the revenue stream. You can’t always talk about the revenues without addressing where the money goes and how the money is used,” Spencer said.

In further response to the report, DOT officials stated that the Highway Trust Fund is set up to fund more than just roads and bridges.

Transit projects, for example, are funded by Trust Fund accounts but those dollars are not counted as highway construction or maintenance.

– By David Tanner, staff writer