Gas prices are going up, and fast. In the last several weeks, they have averaged $3.50 per gallon and are approaching $4 per gallon in some parts of the country. They haven't reached this level since September 2008, according to the Energy Department. If rising fuel costs cause people to drive their cars less frequently, the highway trust fund could find itself with less money to maintain roads and bridges than anticipated. (Already, we know the trust fund can't meet the demand.)
Rising fuel prices can also change how Americans use the public transportation system. A new report from the American Public Transportation Association finds that $4 per-gallon gas prices could result in an additional 670 million public transit passenger trips. If pump prices jump to $5 a gallon, the report predicts an additional 1.5 billion passenger trips can be expected.
Economists say it would take a protracted period of high gas prices--more than six months--to fundamentally change how the nation behaves toward transportation. But even a few months of volatility can impact the way policymakers view mass transit and funding for highways. The gas price crunch comes at a critical time for Congress, as lawmakers are grappling with how to pay for at least $300 billion to reauthorize the surface transportation system.
What impact does a gas-price hike have on current highway funding? How long would gas prices need to remain elevated to change the estimate that the highway trust fund can sustain road maintenance for at least another year and a half? Will a sustained increase in gas prices change the public policy conversation about a highway bill? Will it cause policymakers focus more on mass transit than they have in the past? Can high fuel prices kick-start a conversation about a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee?