Hoping to avert a nationwide shutdown of federal transportation projects, the House Ways and Means Committee has proposed a plan that would temporarily replenish the nearly dried-up Highway Trust Fund and bankroll infrastructure projects through May 15, 2015. The bipartisan plan would rely on unusual methods to replenish federal transportation funds, including taking money from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) fund used to clean up environmentally contaminated sites.
The 18.4-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax used to fund federal transportation projects has not kept pace with the nation’s infrastructure needs for various reasons. The tax has not been raised in more than two decades, it is not tied to inflation, and the rise of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles means that more drivers are paying less for fuel – and less fuel taxes – that go into the fund. Moreover, Congress is unwilling to consider a tax hike to adequately compensate the fund.
To keep the nation’s road, bridge, rail, and aviation projects alive, the transportation fund needs about $16 billion per year. At the current rate, the fund will be depleted by August 1, forcing legislators to find at least another temporary solution to another potential budget crisis.
Lawmakers must act quickly, too, because they are just five days away from a five-week summer recess.
According to the House’s proposed plan, most of the money would come from a “pension smoothing,” a financial maneuver that generates tax revenues by allowing companies to delay tax-deductible pension contributions.
The plan also calls for taking $1 billion from the LUST fund, which the federal government and states rely on to clean up sites where aging, buried storage tanks are leaking or are at risk of leaking gas, oil, and other toxic substances into the surrounding land and ground water.
Congress created the LUST fund in 1984 after it became apparent that several of the 2.2 million underground storage tanks scattered throughout the country were springing leaks and contaminating the environment. The fund is replenished by a 0.1-cent-per-gallon tax on motor fuels.
Since then, about 80 percent of the 488,000 actively leaking tanks were cleaned up, with about 100,000 remaining.
Because efforts to clean up the leaking underground storage tanks has slowed, the LUST fund now generates a healthy surplus. As of June 20104, the fund contained $1.4 billion more than it immediately needed, making it a likely target for lawmakers searching for funds.
If the House’s proposed plan passes, it won’t be the first time Congress has taken money from the LUST fund to replenish another fund. In 2012, legislators took about $2.4 billion from it to pay for a two-year transportation bill that is now set to run out.
But environmentalists and others concerned about the leaking tanks argue the fund should be left alone, pointing to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found a full cleanup of the worst leaking storage tank sites would cost $12 billion. The Sierra Club has argued that the LUST fund is mired in bureaucracy and that it should be more readily available to keep pace with cleanup demands.
Several states currently have a daunting backlog of sites requiring cleanup but lack the funds to finish the work Congress set out to do in 1984.
Worst of all, the $1 billion lawmakers intend to transfer from the LUST fund to the Highway Trust Fund provides only a very temporary solution to the nation’s transportation infrastructure problems, while tens of thousands of storage tanks continue to contaminate the soil and groundwater.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is pushing Congress to come up with a four-year spending plan that would allow state and local governments to start larger, long-term projects that have been continually shelved because they can’t be accommodated by all the temporary, limited time frames.
“We’ve had 18 short-term measures in the last five years,” Mr. Foxx said. “The cumulative effect of short-term measures is that the country is grinding to a halt.”