The Highway Trust Fund Problem in Two Charts

February 8, 2019

While putting together my presentation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce infrastructure summit earlier this week, I tried to distill the whole Highway Trust Fund financial problem into a couple of charts that would fit on a single wide-screen PowerPoint slide. Here are the results.

The first chart shows the cash flow of the Highway Trust Fund in its totality for the first 51 years of its existence – fiscal years 1957 through 2007. The blue column on the left is $715,4 billion in excise tax receipts, and the gray bar at the top of the blue column is $30.2 billion in interest earned on balances (and a few dollars in safety penalty deposits). The orange bar at right represents $727.5 billion in spending outlays. When one subtracts the $8 billion in balances canceled by the TEA21 law in 1998, that’s about $738 billion in deposits versus $728 billion in spending.

The second chart, below, shows the results since then – the actual results for fiscal years 2008-2018, plus the new Congressional Budget Office baseline projections for fiscal year 2019 and 2020 (to the end of the current authorization period). The color scheme and layout is the same, except that the gray bar for interest and penalties is too small to be seen ($2.7 billion or so). Over this period, $519.5 billion in actual tax receipts is matched against $652.9 billion in spending. In order to make good on that difference, the yellow column on top of the blue column at left represents $143.6 billion in bailout transfers (almost all of it from the general fund of the Treasury) over the FY 2008-2020 period.

All told, tax receipts plus interest and penalties plus bailouts is estimated to equal $666 billion over that period, versus spending estimates of $653 billion. This would leave the Highway Trust Fund with about $13 billion in cash at the end of the FAST Act on September 30, 2020, enabling it to putter along under a short-term funding extension until sometime in spring or summer 2021 when it will run out of money (the Mass Transit Account first, then the Highway Account).


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