Law360 Quotes Jim Burnley and Fred Wagner on the Federal Highway Trust Fund

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On January 30, 2020, Jim Burnley and Fred Wagner were quoted in Law360 regarding the federal Highway Trust Fund. According to the article, House Democrats' renewed push for an infrastructure package doesn't spell out how to finance future projects, stoking fears that an already sharply divided Congress won't reach an agreement on a new multiyear deal to replace surface transportation funding legislation that's set to expire in September.

House Democrats and Republicans agree on a top priority: figuring out how to replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund. It takes in about $38 billion a year from the fuel tax, according to the Congressional Budget Office, but that still falls short of annual demand. As a result, the fund has often been propped up by cash infusions from the federal general fund and other sources.

There's widespread agreement that the government cannot keep relying solely on the fuel tax and that the fund cannot continue to be propped up by infusions to stay solvent.

"It's still a game of chicken between Congress and the White House [and] no one is truly going first to say where the money is going to come from," said Wagner. "That's still going to be an issue — who's going to make the first move. There are some hints in the framework as to the directions [they might take]."

The House Democrats' framework also includes a number of ambitious goals to cut carbon pollution, incorporate climate-friendly building materials into infrastructure and construction, and start transitioning fleets of aircraft, buses, and vehicles toward zero emissions. If lawmakers are intent on pushing that agenda, however, they'll have to seriously negotiate a viable fix to the fuel tax and Highway Trust Fund issue.

"It's already falling way short of funding current highway and transit programs and the gap will simply get bigger year after year, particularly if federal policies push people toward electrified vehicles," Burnley said. "That's a very important part of this debate and it's timely. Even if the policies are not adopted to push people toward electrified vehicles in a dramatic way, we still need to have the debate on how to replace fuel taxes."