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The fund to repair America's crumbling infrastructure is almost out of cash

The Highway Trust Fund needs $325 billion stat

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Imagine you're driving. Maybe on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, or down Interstate 95 through New Haven, or I-94 in Milwaukee. Chances are you'll encounter a truck-swallowing pothole, or lanes strewn with orange cones, or traffic at a standstill. After all, Illinois, Connecticut, and Wisconsin have the worst roads in the nation. And the Highway Trust Fund — the source for most federal spending on roads, bridges, highways, tunnels, and public transit — is almost out of money. Again.

So what needs fixing? Almost everything

Earlier this month, Congress temporarily extended the fund until December 4th. Lawmakers want to give themselves more time to finalize a plan that few expect to adequately address the nation's vast and evolving infrastructure needs. Eventually, Congress is expected to approve a six-year plan, which is equal parts encouraging and discouraging: it would be the long-term strategy that advocates say is sorely needed, but it would enshrine many of the dusty, out-dated policies of the past for almost another decade.

The fund's primary source of revenue is the federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel. That tax hasn't gone up since 1993, and isn't pegged to inflation. A dollar in 1993 is worth only 60 cents today. If the gas tax had kept up with inflation, it would be 30 cents a gallon today and pull in nearly twice the amount of revenue. The tax brings in around $34 billion each year, but while that seems like a lot of money, it barely scratches the surface of what's needed to maintain the nation's highways in a state of good repair.

The federal government spends roughly $50 billion annually on infrastructure, leaving a $16 billion hole in the Highway Trust Fund. Over the last decade, Congress has signed off on a series of short-term extensions to prevent the fund from completely drying up. The one just approved by the Senate would mark the 36th such funding extension for the fund since 2009.

Also, the fund can't borrow money, so it needs regular general fund transfers in order to stay solvent. The most recent one was this summer, when Congress approved a $10.8 billion transfer from the general fund.

"We're just lurching from short-term extension to short-term extension," said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. He said the real problem is lackluster interest in Washington to tackle the fund's core problems. For example, the House passed a $325 billion bipartisan measure that reauthorizes the fund for six years but only provides funding for three of those years.

Lawmakers are "panicked"

So what needs fixing? Almost everything. Today, more than 60,000 bridges in the United States are considered structurally deficient, according to the Department of Transportation, and 32 percent of US major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In its most recent report, the ASCE gave the nation's overall infrastructure — everything from airports to wastewater — a D+. The US would need to spend an estimated $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring its infrastructure into decent shape. That's more than one-third the nation's entire gross domestic product.

Meanwhile, 10 of the nation's largest public transit agencies face a collective repair backlog of $102 billion, according to the Regional Plan Association. That means that nearly one-fifth of the US population is standing on crumbling train platforms, waiting for out-of-date buses, or coping with more frequent delays due to mechanical problems.

And the current bill to reauthorize the Highway Trust Fund could make some of those transit problems even worse. One of the 270 amendments that was attached to the House's version of the bill would essentially rob Peter to pay Paul by transferring hundreds of millions of dollars from East Coast states and dump it into a national, competitive bus program that her district could apply for, said Nadine Lemmon, federal policy coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The amendment, sponsored by Washington Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, would cut $1.6 billion over six years from a program that funds transit projects in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, New York, and Washington, DC to pay for transit upgrades in Herrera Beutler's district, Lemmon said. "It would mean instantaneous transit service cuts and fare hikes," she added. "It basically has [East Coast] representatives panicked."

Bad roads penalize individual drivers

Bad infrastructure can be dangerous — think highway potholes, rusty bridges, or crumbling subway stations — but is rarely deadly. According to statistics just released by the DOT, only 2 percent of traffic deaths every year are related to "the environment," which includes dangerous road conditions, as well as weather-related causes, Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told The Verge. "Two percent, or less," Rosekind added.

What bad infrastructure is, though, is a cash sinkhole: not just for the economy, but for drivers as well. Bad road conditions in Washington, DC cost individual drivers an extra $1,042 each year in extra vehicle operation and maintenance costs, according to TripNet, a national transportation research group. California drivers pay an extra $742 a year, New Jersey drivers $685, and Oklahoma drivers $763.

Even when the country's infrastructure fails spectacularly and lives are lost, Washington still cannot muster the willpower to fix the fundamental problems. Puentes noted that in the wake of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007, which killed 13 people and injured 145, Congress weighed raising the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon to fill the gap in the trust fund. But the proposal died. And subsequent efforts to produce more money for road and bridge repairs have also failed.

While inertia reigns in Washington, the states have begun to take matters into their own hands. Six states and the nation's capital have raised gas taxes in the past year to pay for highway construction. A handful of others are considering similar moves.

Tax miles driven, not gallons guzzled

California and Oregon are testing systems that would tax vehicle-miles traveled, rather than gas, to pay for infrastructure upgrades. This delights those who believe owners of electric and self-driving vehicles will need to pay into the fund just as those who drive gas-guzzling cars. Mobility taxes promise a steady stream of money for the Highway Trust Fund as Americans flock to cities, purchase fewer cars, drive less, and walk or bike more.

In many ways, the Highway Trust Fund is just a blank check, where the feds dole out large pots of money to the states with few requirements on how they spend it. One presidential candidate, John Kasich, suggested scrapping the fund entirely. Most experts think it needs a complete overhaul, with more emphasis placed on disincentivizing environmentally bad behavior like driving, and more attention paid to protecting public health. Others argue the fund is a relic of the Eisenhower era of big road projects, and not intended to meet the needs of a country that doesn't really need any more highways.

But people still need to get around, goods still need to move between cities, and the US is increasingly in competition with the rest of the world for economic supremacy. A disintegrating infrastructure could jeopardize everything. "We need to reinvest in the existing infrastructure system," Puentes said. "It's very quickly reaching the end of its lifeline."