The efficiency conundrum
A combination of less driving and more fuel-efficient vehicles is imperilling America’s highway system
AMERICANS pay a federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. That amount was set in 1993, when the average new passenger car on American roads got 28.4 miles per gallon (mpg), and the best-selling American car got 18mpg in the city and 27 on highways. In 2010 the average new passenger car got 33.7mpg. The best-selling car got 22mpg in the city and 33 on highways.
And just as cars are growing more fuel-efficient, Americans are driving less. In 2010 they drove just under three trillion miles—less than they did in 2006. While better fuel-efficiency is good news for Americans’ wallets and less driving good for the country’s air, for its highways and mass-transit systems, it is something of a disaster.
That is because federal funds, mostly derived from fuel-tax revenue, account for 22% of all highway funding and 17% of mass-transit funding nationally (with the rest coming from state and local governments). Fuel taxes go into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which was created in 1956 to finance highway construction nationally. The HTF still spends most of its funds on highway and bridge maintenance and construction, but in 1982 Congress created a Mass Transit account within the HTF. Today 15.44 of every 18.4 cents in fuel-tax per gallon funds highways, while 2.86 funds mass transit and 0.1 cents funds clean-up of leaking underground storage tanks. And the HTF receives some revenue from taxes on truck tyres, diesel, and other driving-related sources, but most of its money comes from petrol taxes.
As the HTF pays for long-term, large-scale construction projects, it has never been required to have the full funding a project will require on hand when that project is authorised; consequently, it has long paid out more than it took in each year. As long as Americans drove more each year, that arrangement worked, and for much of the HTF’s existence, that is exactly what happened. America’s workforce grew. Its workers abandoned tight-knit cities for ever more far-flung suburbs, requiring longer commutes.
But as that trend has slowed, the HTF has suffered: monies paid into the HTF fell by around one-seventh from 2007 to 2010. From 2005 to 2009 every state received more from the fund than they paid in. Between 2008 and 2010 Congress transferred $34.5 billion in general revenues into the HTF—the first time it had ever received such an infusion. Earlier this year the Congressional Budget Office forecast that the HTF will be unable to fund highway maintenance by 2013.
That money will be difficult to find elsewhere. Around half of all surface-transportation funding and 20% of mass-transit funding comes from the states, many of which face budgetary woes of their own. Both Barack Obama and his transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, oppose raising the gas tax; a tax on miles travelled is probably a political impossibility.
There has been some movement in Congress—in November a Senate committee approved legislation maintaining highway funding at its current levels for two years, while House Republicans plan to introduce a six-year transportation bill this month—but it is little and late. America’s transportation infrastructure can ill afford to wait. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2009 that 36% of America’s major urban highways are congested, costing $78.2 billion each year in wasted time and fuel costs. According to Transportation for America, an advocacy group, one in nine highway bridges are “structurally deficient”—a quality they seem to share with America’s Congress.
trillion n. 百万兆 maintenance n. 维护 consequently adv.结果 infusion n.灌输，激励 legislation n. 立法