The Highway Trust Fund is supposed to be supported by the federal fuel tax, which is set at 18.4 cents per gallon. However, the tax hasn't increased in over 20 years, even as the costs of road construction have continued to rise.
As a result, the fund is continually depleted until Congress determines that another infusion is necessary and votes to transfer billions from the general fund. This keeps the fund kicking for the short term - sometimes for only a couple of years, sometimes only a couple of months - but doesn't add up to a long-term funding solution.
In Montana, this means that important highway maintenance and improvement projects must be put off until funding becomes more certain. And it means that we can expect the condition of our highways to deteriorate unless Congress can at last agree to a sustainable course of action.
At the moment, Congress is working under yet another fast-approaching deadline; this time set for the end of July. Meanwhile, national and state transportation experts are sounding the alarm that continued funding shortages will only lead to more dangerous roads.
Last week, for the first time, the Montana Department of Transportation seized the occasion provided by Good Roads Day to warn Montanans to expect degraded road conditions in the future if Congress doesn't authorize more federal funds. All Montanans, but especially our congressional delegates, should heed their warning.
Like other rural states, Montana relies heavily on federal dollars to help maintain the state's many miles of roads and bridges. A recent news release from the department reminded residents that the federal government covers 87 cents of every dollar spent on road projects in Montana.
Unfortunately, the state's transportation infrastructure needs have been piling up and far outpace the amount of funding available to pay for them. MDT Director Mike Tooley estimated that Montana has $15.8 billion worth of transportation needs, and less than a third of that in available funding.
In May, a national non-profit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C., released a new report highlighting the growing need to improve rural road conditions. It noted that rural communities are dependent on the highway system both economically and for their overall quality of life.
The TRIP report found that pavement conditions in some places are poor, and that thousands of bridges are in need of repair or replacement. In Montana, it found that the condition of 7 percent of the pavement at rural arterials and major collectors was poor. The rest was either in good or fair condition. However, it also noted that in Montana, the fatality rate on rural roads is 3.09 per 100,000 miles, while for all other roads in the state the fatality rate is only 0.76 per 100,000 miles. The group ranked Montana's rural road fatality rate the fourth-worst in the nation.
The TRIP report was released along with a call for Congress to approve long-term transportation legislation - just before Congress passed the two-month extension set to expire at the end of next month.
The condition of Montana's roads will continue to deteriorate unless Congress can finally agree to a long-term solution that adequately provides for the maintenance and improvement of America's highway system. Montanans have a big stake in this debate; the three members of our congressional delegation should do their utmost to help settle the funding question in a way that ensures our highways will be safe far down the road.