Raiding the Trust Fund

To keep from laying off Air Traffic Controllers, Congress grabbed money intended to improve airport safety

The good news: air traffic controllers won't be furloughed. (Photo: NATS Press Office)

In the U.S. we have a federal Highway Trust Fund that takes money collected from fuel taxes and uses it for road improvements. And people are pretty comfortable with that. Every time you fill up with gas, 18.3 cents per gallon (or 24.4 cents for diesel) goes into the fund. Once the trust fund began to accumulate serious money, the temptation to raid it for other agendas became irresistible, so now it pays for mass transit and other stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with roads and bridges.

Partly because there are more highway drivers than users of the nation’s airspace, nobody’s objecting so far to a move by government to very quietly steal money from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund to pay for air traffic controllers’ salaries and avoid furloughs brought on by the recent sequester of federal funds. In fact, the relief at the fact that furloughs are being cancelled seems to have completely fogged the vision of those who would ordinarily be most alert to this kind of money grab.

The AATF is supposed to pay for improvements to airports and airways, to make both safer. The original intention of legislators was to create a mechanism to pay for needed improvements in such areas as navigation aids and airports. A ticket tax, fuel tax, and other excise taxes would provide for greater revenues as usage rose. For years, government officials looking for ways to patch over budget shortfalls have tried to tap the fund to pay for operations, which was not the intent of the law.

But furloughs and flight delays, regardless of the arguments over whether they are necessary or justified, have one clear result: they inconvenience people. Principles tend to go out the window when people can’t get where they want, when they want to get there. And these days, a short-term Band-Aid often looks better to politicians than a long-term solution that requires negotiation and compromise.

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