Contractors say more highway money needed

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An organization of highway builders claims the federal Highway Trust Fund is on the verge of bankruptcy. Its recommendations include a higher federal gas tax and more toll roads.

Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America, made his remarks Nov. 3 at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, citing information from The Future of Highway and Public Transportation Financing, a study released by the National Chamber Foundation.

Sandherr said merely maintaining current highways through 2030 will cost $500 billion more than the current system provides, while making needed improvements will add another $500 billion to the shortfall.

The report predicts that the Highway Trust Fund will be fully spent in 2008, one year shy of the authorization period in the recent highway-spending plan signed by President Bush.

Without “a significant influx of new revenues,” Sandherr said, the nation’s highways will “continue to deteriorate, impacting mobility and economic well-being.”

The report recommends more money for highway construction through a number of means, the most controversial of which would be indexing the gas tax to inflation, which means the tax automatically would increase without government action, and adding more toll lanes and toll roads.

Federal Highway Administration spokesmen declined to comment on the Highway Trust Fund’s fiscal stability. “We welcome AGC’s commitment to helping President Bush and America’s transportation community improve investment in our nation’s highways,” said Rich Capka, acting administrator of the agency.

Capka’s agency already has created a National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission to study short-term funding and explore long-term alternatives to using the federal fuel tax as the main revenue source of the Highway Trust Fund.

The federal gas tax last was increased in 1993, and since has lost a third of its purchasing power. The current political environment does not accommodate a rational discussion of a gas tax increase, Sandherr said.

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Highway traffic congestion in 2003 caused 3.7 billion hours of delays and wasted 2.3 billion gallons of fuel, the construction group said.