Editorial: Highway Trust Fund needs more than temporary patch

A view of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on

A view of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on May 11, 2006. (Credit: Getty Images/Stan Honda)

Congress is closing in on a plan to give the Highway Trust Fund a temporary infusion of cash so it won't run dry in a matter of days.

The funding is essential. Roads, bridges and rails must be maintained and improved. Unless Congress comes up with the money, tens of thousands of projects will have to be put on hold, jeopardizing hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But the situation demands more than another temporary patch. Congress has enacted 18 of those in the past five years. Legislators need to find the political courage to authorize funding for the long haul -- if necessary by bucking anti-tax orthodoxy and raising the fuel tax that since 1993 has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel.

Bipartisan bills in the Senate and House of Representatives would provide $10 billion to keep the trust fund solvent through May 15. That's being billed as a bridge to more permanent funding. But buying more time won't make it any easier for Congress to do this job.

Even the plan for funding the latest temporary fix is misguided. The House and Senate bills would extend customs fees on importers and poach money from a trust fund for repairing and replacing leaking underground storage tanks. The Senate would add measures to ramp up the IRS' ability to collect unpaid taxes. But in a particularly bad proposal, both bills would change the rules on contributions to private pension plans, allowing employers to temporarily put in less money. Some of the savings would show up on their bottom lines as taxable income, generating revenue to be directed to the Highway Trust Fund. That's a horrible idea. The Congressional Budget Office cautions the result would be more underfunded pension plans. And lower pension contributions now would result in larger contributions, and less tax revenue, down the road.

Congress must provide the reliable funding the nation needs for this critical infrastructure. Doing anything less is just spinning its wheels.

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