Travel on the roads fell for the sixth consecutive month, the Federal Highway Administration reported, increasing worries about the financial health of the Highway Trust Fund. Industry and state officials are pushing for Congress to add revenue to the fund to avert sharp cuts in federal highway aid.
FHWA's latest monthly "Traffic Volume Trends" report, released June 18, shows that vehicle miles traveled declined 1.8% in April, compared with the April 2007 level. The April 2008 total was 245.9 billion miles.
For April 2008, only the Northeast region posted an increase in traffic, with mileage up 1.4%; the other four regions were down, with the West recording the largest falloff, 2.8%.
For the first four months of 2008, cumulative vehicle miles traveled were down 2.1% from the same period last year.
The new FHWA report increases state and industry officials' worries about the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed through motor fuels taxes and other levies. The Bush administration's most recent projection, issued early this year, shows the trust fund's highway account will post a $3.2-billion deficit in fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1, 2008.
Unless new revenue is added to the fund, highway advocates say, a 2009 funding cut of about $14 billion, or 34%, would be required to get the fund's highway account out of the red.
Highway interests are hoping Congress soon will approve a remedy for the trust fund's financial problem. Last year, the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation that would add about $5 billion to the fund, but that was sidetracked in May.
With travel continuing to dip, observers fear that more than $5 billion in revenue will be needed. They are anxiously awaiting the next Bush administration update on the trust fund's revenue picture, expected to be released in July or August. Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors' highway and transportation division, says, "We're expecting much worse news than we got back in February," when the last trust fund estimate came out.
State and industry officials say that there is a new Senate proposal to address the shortfall, by adding about $8 billion to the trust fund. They say Finance panel Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the committee's top Republican, Charles Grassley (Iowa) and Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have agreed to the plan.
The $8 billion would be shifted to the trust fund from the general fund, thus "recapturing" money lost to the fund during negotiations over the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.
The aim would be to attach the trust fund "fix" to an expected bill that would extend Federal Aviation Administration programs. The FAA programs' authorization is slated to lapse on June 30.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said, "We're burning less fuel as energy costs change driving patterns, steer people toward more efficient vehicles and encourage more to use transit. Which is exactly why we need a more effective funding source than the gas tax."
A congressionally mandated commission issued a report in January calling for several revenue-raising measures for surface transportation over the 2009-2025 period, including higher federal and state fuel taxes, wider authority for tolls and encouraging use of public-private partnerships. Longer-range, the panel recommended moving from a fuels tax to a vehicle-miles-traveled charge.
Peters, who chaired the commission, dissented from its recommendations. She has strongly opposed higher fuels taxes and advocates a larger role for the private sector in financing transportation infrastructure.