WASHINGTON - A slow-motion pile-up is coming into view on US highways and Capitol Hill this summer: federal funding for road construction is running out and Congress faces a big fight over how to replenish it.
The trucking industry, many state transportation directors and even a few lawmakers say the simple solution to shore up the Highway Trust Fund and avoid construction layoffs is to raise federal fuel taxes, unchanged since 1993.
But in a congressional election year in which both Democrats and Republicans are wary of voter backlash, the message is clear: Not going to happen. "We have never proposed or a supported a gas tax," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Monday.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner also opposes an increase in fuel taxes, an aide said. And earlier this year, Boehner all but ruled out another transfer of general funds to keep the Highway Trust Fund afloat.
If Congress can't agree on an alternative way to increase transportation money by late summer - or take the easier path of a short-term fund transfer - the consequences could be huge, halting or slowing work on thousands of projects. This could idle hundreds of thousands of workers at a time when the US economy is finally gaining some traction.
A funding crisis would affect the nearly 600 major projects under way in California at a cost of more than $11 billion (S$13.7 billion), said Mark Dinger, spokesman for the state's Department of Transportation. "In surprisingly short order, the operations of the nation's largest transportation agency could grind to a halt," he said.
The situation parallels the numerous "cliffs" that Congress has faced over the past year on divisive fiscal issues, with a looming deadline and potentially dire economic consequences.
With time running short, an ambitious reform of a funding mechanism that has been in place since the 1956 looks less likely.
The central problem is that the existing per-gallon fuel taxes of 18.4 cents for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel are no longer producing enough revenue to fund road, bridge and tunnel projects. This is due largely to improved vehicle fuel efficiency, less driving amid a slow economic recovery and construction cost inflation.