ANALYSIS: Don’t get railroaded by all of this tax talk

| 10/16/2009

Highway users just can’t catch a break.

Despite paying billions into the Highway Trust Fund in fuel taxes and other fees every year, highway users are continually told it’s not enough.

Truckers are OK with paying taxes to drive on good roads and bridges, but when lawmakers siphon highway money away for non-highway uses, the issue gets contentious.

The current recession has led to a drop in fuel consumption and heavy equipment sales, which means less money going into the Highway Trust Fund.

If those issues weren’t enough, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have stated firmly that taxes and fees must be increased to fund transportation. Despite the political implications involved with tax increases, we have to believe Congress is serious about this.

Should highway users simply roll over and accept tax increases in the next transportation authorization bill? Are we to automatically assume that tax increases will be proportionate to better highways and bridges?

Highway users should not settle for that line of thinking just yet, and should be demanding accountability in spending first. Fix the holes in the bucket first.

Transit advocates and a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working hard to land a bigger slice of the pie for high-speed rail, intermodal freight movement and mass transit.

According to the Congressional Research Service, rail and mass transit programs currently receive about 18 percent of the Highway Trust Fund – i.e., your fuel taxes, licenses, fees and equipment taxes.

The current draft of the highway authorization bill in Congress calls for the rail and transit share to be increased to 22 percent. That’s 22 cents from every dollar collected from highway users.

That’s just making the hole in the bucket bigger. OOIDA leadership and members should not let this proposal go unchecked.

“Highway users should be outraged that some of these supporters of rail and public transportation are going to make continued attempts in this highway bill to take the resources that we provide through the Highway Trust Fund and divert them to other uses,” OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce told Land Line on Thursday, Oct. 15.

“The purpose of the Highway Trust Fund is to have highway users fund roads. The trust in the Trust Fund has been eroded over the years as advocates for rail have gradually taken a penny at a time from highway users.”

Joyce says highways and the nation’s 150,000 structurally deficient bridges will only continue to deteriorate and underperform as long as money is diverted to non-highway programs.

Transit advocates make an argument that commuter rail and buses take cars off the roads and that freight trains would do the same for truck traffic.

While a case can be made for commuter trains and buses, truckers are the first to point out that rail can never deliver the door-to-door service and specialized hauling that only trucking can provide.

Without trucks – and good roads and bridges for them to drive on – the U.S. economy would sink into a black hole.

Congress should be looking to restore road and bridge funding through the very Highway Trust Fund that was created for that purpose.

In a recent editorial for Capitol Hill publication Transportation Weekly, Editor Jeff Davis rightly points out that the Highway Trust Fund is on a slippery slope.

“If inadequate Trust Fund revenues are the big problem – then in what universe can it possibly be a good idea to spend a greater percentage of the Trust Fund’s inadequate revenues on expanding transit systems in order to get more people to stop paying the taxes that support the Trust Fund, thus driving revenues down even further?” Davis asks.

Davis reported Wednesday, Oct. 14, that approximately 29 percent of the mass transit budget in 1984 came from the Highway Trust Fund, but transit and rail now rely on highway users for 81 percent of their funding.

OOIDA is not anti-rail or anti-mass transit, but the Association believes that those modes – as well as highway users – would be better served if rail and transit had their own funding sources.

“We as highway users need to make a move to take back the Trust Fund for what its intended purpose was, and rail and mass-transit can find their own funding mechanism,” Joyce said.

“A unified trust fund does nothing to benefit highway users.”

The authorization bill in Congress has a long way to go before it passes. Make sure your representative and senators know how you feel about these issues that affect your livelihood.

– By David Tanner, staff writer