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Roads fund shortfall

What Americans ought to do, the shiver-in-the-dark crowd has long advised, is simply drive less. If Americans would simply drive less, everything would be fine.

Meantime, federal lawmakers have fallen ever deeper into the habit of loading up highway spending bills with pet projects — called “earmarks” — for their home states. The current highway spending bill has more than $24 billion in earmarks. Billion with a “B.”

Busy beaver lawmakers have also shifted an increasing portion of road funds — collected from tire and gasoline excises and thus supposedly reserved for highway construction and repair — to fund light rail and other mass transit alternatives, more popular with environmentalists and contractors-with-their-hands-out than they’ve ever been with actual riders.

Add the recent sharp run-up in the price of gasoline — which has indeed fulfilled the greens’ long-time wish, causing Americans to drive less — and the U.S. Department of Transportation now faces the fiscal equivalent of a perfect storm.

The federal highway trust fund will run out of money this month, requiring delays in payments to states for transportation construction projects, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said Friday.

The trust fund — the federal account used to help pay for highway and bridge projects — will run about $8.3 billion short by the end of September, Secretary Peters said during a conference call with reporters.

The shortfall will mean delays — and in some cases a temporary reduction — in payments to states for infrastructure projects the federal government has agreed to help finance.

Peters blamed the funding shortage on the high price of gasoline, which has prompted Americans to drive less. That means less fuel has been purchased, and less in gasoline taxes flowing to the trust fund. Americans drove 50 billion fewer miles between November and June 2008 than during the same period a year earlier.

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, tells The Associated Press the funding delays proposed by Secretary Peters will “have grave repercussions for the states, for hundreds of thousands of workers in the construction industry, and the driving public.”

“It will worsen the financial crises many states are already facing, and it will delay or halt needed transportation projects and leave contractors and suppliers with IOUs instead of cash to pay their workers,” Mr. Horsley said in a statement last week.

The solution is certainly not to drive gasoline prices even higher by jacking up fuel taxes — the kind of Hoover-Roosevelt pile-on-the-misery “solution” that gave us the Great Depression.

The solution is for Congress to stop larding up spending bills with highway “earmarks” — including mass transit boondoggles justified by ridership “projections” that wouldn’t pass the laugh test with any group of private investors actually required to foot the bill when the number of real paying passengers (inevitably) fail to match these Fantasyland promises.

And if they won’t — voters need to simply throw the bums out.

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