Danger zone

Americans are driving less because of higher gasoline prices, and that’s good news. Right?

Well, not if you’re concerned about the highways upon which they’re driving.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced Friday that the federal highway trust fund will run out of money this month. That means money that flows to states to pay for federal highways and bridges will be delayed or reduced. And, as the unemployment situation worsens, (see editorial above) that may mean even more layoffs from road construction companies.

As Americans have driven less or switched to more fuel-efficient vehicles, they have purchased less gasoline.

The result is they have also been paying far less of the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, substantially reducing the amount of money flowing into the highway trust fund.

But don’t blame fuel-conserving motorists for all the problems. Peters said the penchant by members of Congress to attach earmarks to funding bills has drained $24 billion from the highway trust fund this year.

Earmarking, of course, has become a bipartisan endeavor. It is not limited to either Democrats or Republicans.

To solve the funding shortfall, Peters is urging Congress to pass a bill that would transfer $8 billion from the general fund to the highway trust fund, a bill that President George W. Bush originally planned to veto but now apparently supports.

We’re not fond of such budget transfers to fix shortfalls. It would be better for Congress to remove the $24 billion for pork-barrel projects in home districts. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen, so the temporary fix is necessary.

In the long run, Congress must address how it plans to keep funding highways and bridges as Americans conserve more and pay less in gasoline taxes. And it must stop larding up every funding bill with pork projects that detract from other needs.


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