A bill was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives last week that proposes raising the federal tax on gasoline by 15 cents a gallon. It has a snowball’s chance in Hilo of becoming law.
That’s unfortunate, perhaps even tragic, given the role that poorly maintained highways have in traffic accidents.
The reasons for opposing the bill are familiar. At least one reason — that there’s waste in the federal highway programs — is downright trite. There’s waste in every program, though its extent is often exaggerated. And the level of waste is tiny compared to this nation’s transportation needs.
Then there’s the no-tax pledge popular among Republicans and almost sacred among tea partiers. Perhaps they believe the nation is better served by allowing its transportation system to deteriorate to the point of decrepitude than to raise what amounts to a user fee to prevent the deterioration.
Fact is, the federal gas tax — 18.4 cents on a gallon of gas and 24.4 cents on a gallon of diesel fuel — hasn’t changed since 1993. In the interim, gas has more than doubled in price. And the Highway Transportation Fund has gone dry. Last year, to fund the existing transportation bill, Congress had to transfer $50 billion from general tax revenue — money that could have lessened the pain of sequestration or met other needs — to maintain highways. Many billions more will be needed this year. States also levy gas taxes (Kansas levies 25 cents a gallon), but states also rely on the federal government for as much as half of their transportation funding.
The nations’ transportation infrastructure needs are enormous. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that the nation needs to spend $3.7 trillion on transportation and other infrastructure improvements by 2020 if it hopes to remain competitive.
Yes, raising the federal gas tax would make gas more expensive. But not raising it carries costs as well. Among them, as Texas A&M researchers learned, congested roads cost the average motorist more than $800 a year.
Perhaps at some point our nation must find another way to subsidize transportation systems, such as taxing the number of miles a vehicle is driven rather than how much gas it uses. After all, we are driving less and in some areas using public transportation more.
But in the meantime, our refusal to raise enough money in federal fuel taxes to maintain our transportation infrastructure is condemning our children to an overcrowded, obsolete, pothole-ridden system that’s unsafe and undermines our long-term economic prospects.