With relatively little fanfare, one of the most important panels in Washington, D.C., has begun work. No, it is not a top secret commission looking into federal eavesdropping on American telephone calls or a highly political probe into who ratted out a federal undercover intelligence agent.

(Photo courtesy of the Federal
Highway Administration)

It affects far more Americans in everyday life. It is the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

Americans should not be turned off by the mind-numbing name. They should be turned on by the fact that the commission will play a key role in shaping the future funding of U.S. highways, bridges and mass transit. It will affect them directly in their pocketbooks when they purchase fuel, pay a toll or sit motionless in traffic.

Congress formed the commission because it is worried about the Highway Trust Fund, the financial anchor for the federal highway program for the last half century. It will dip into the red at the end of fiscal 2010. More money is needed to meet the wants and needs of the nation, and the panel’s quest is to find it while causing the least pain.

The funding gap appears just as the current federal transportation funding bill expires. Over six years, it will have distributed $286.5 billion. One would think that would be enough to cover the tab for an efficient transportation network. But as the federal program moves onward to new projects, it has to look backward to maintain, refurbish or rebuild parts of the system that now are at the end of their design life. One only has to travel a bit on 50-year-old concrete pavement to understand the need. If we wait much longer for some projects, we will be on dirt roads again.

Fortunately for Americans, the panel is packed with knowledgeable transportation experts from all parts of politics, construction and academia. They are faced with easy solutions, such as raising the 18.4¢ per gallon federal tax on gasoline or the 24.4¢ tax on diesel. The last increase on both was 4.3¢ in 1993. But that may be political suicide.

Other options include expanding public-private partnerships, charging tolls on some roads at certain times or leasing entire road systems to private firms. The trust fund remains the most efficient funding tool, but the legislative process supporting it needs to be sharpened. The last federal transportation bill contained almost 6,000 projects costing $9 billion tacked on by politicians as it made its way through Congress. It was a bipartisan porkfest. To some people, $9 billion is a lot of money that can be put to good use. The panel should start there.