Only 5.2% of Highway Funds Used to Build New Roads

By Patrick Burke | February 1, 2013 | 11:01am EST

Traffic is bumper to bumper south-bound on I-395 headed out of Washington before the Thanksgiving holiday, Nov. 20, 2012, in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo)

( - Approximately 5.2 percent of funds obligated to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) during fiscal years 2009-2011 actually went to the construction of new highways.

An additional two and a half percent of that funding went to new construction of bridges, according to a Jan. 16 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) entitled “Highway Trust Fund Obligations, Fiscal Years 2009 to 2011.”

Between FY 2009-2011, the Department of Transportation [DOT] authorized $144 billion from the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to four separate administrations within the Department. Of that $144 billion, $116.7 billion went to the FHWA.

FHWA then devoted 81 percent ($94 billion) of the funding it received towards “construction and maintenance purposes.” Of the total $116.7 billion to the FHWA, $6.094 billion (5.2 percent) was spent on the construction of new highways and $2.963 billion (2.5 percent) on new bridges.

The remaining 19 percent of FHWA funds were devoted to “Transportation Enhancements” and “Other” costs that included but were not limited to: “planning,” “Rail/Highway crossing,” and making carpool (HOV) lanes operational.

The Transportation Enhancements category contains costs separate from construction and maintenance.

For example, FHWA spent $1.951 billion on “facilities for pedestrians and bicycles” as well as an additional $9 million on “preservation of abandoned railway corridors.” "Transportation Enhancements” also included $98 million for “safety and education for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Set up in 1956, the Highway Trust Fund uses federal excise taxes on fuel to provide money for the construction and maintenance of federally controlled roads. The government also funds the HTF through truck-related taxes.

“Receipts from the HTF are derived from two main sources: federal excise taxes on motor fuels (gasoline, diesel, and special fuels taxes) and truck-related taxes (truck and trailer sales, truck tire, and heavy-vehicle use taxes)” according to the Jan. 16 report. “Motor fuels tax receipts constitute the single largest source of HTF revenue. The Highway Account receives the majority of the tax receipts allocated to the fund.”

In other words, the more gas taxes a motorist pays to the federal government, the more he or she is paying into the HTF.

According to Treasury Statements from FY 2009-2011, the U.S. government received approximately $106.9 billion in excise taxes that went to the HTF.

A May 2012 report from the Congressional Budget Office  noted that for much of the past decade, the Highway Trust Fund’s outlays have exceeded receipts. In recent years, the shortfall has been covered by transfers from the U.S. Treasury’s general fund.

"Policies that are designed to reduce gasoline consumption, including those that would impose stricter standards for the fuel economy of vehicles, could decrease revenues for the trust fund and thus could add to the shortfall," the CBO said.

On July 6, 2012, President Obama signed into law the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” (MAP-21), which authorized $40.4 billion from the HTF for highway projects in FY 2013, and another $41 billion for FY 2014.

Although the GAO report only analyzed the use of HTF funds between FY 2009-2011, MAP-21 now requires GAO to report on instances when HTF money is not used for construction and maintenance of highways and bridges.

In August 2012, the Congressional Budget Office warned that unless Congress intercedes, the HTF will run out of money FY 2015.

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