As the summer driving season begins, motorists are already navigating overcrowded, pothole-pocked highways and deteriorating bridges. Soon, thanks to a gridlocked Congress, drivers might also contend with abandoned construction sites.
The federal Highway Trust Fund is just weeks from running out of money, which would halt a number of road and transit improvements. There’s talk in Washington of various quick fixes. But no consideration is being given to providing the trust fund with the stable income source it so desperately needs.
The fund has been going broke for many years. The reason: The 18.4-cent federal gas tax that finances the fund has not been raised since 1993. Thanks to inflation, the tax is now worth just 11.2 cents in 1993 dollars, even as cars have become more fuel-efficient, further reducing revenue. The fund has been kept solvent only through temporary patches that transfer money from other parts of the federal budget.
With the House of Representatives full of firebrands out to make symbolic gestures on taxes and core government spending, it’s far from certain there will be a deal in time to keep construction workers on the job this summer.
One idea being floated would end Saturday mail delivery and use the savings to fund roads and transit. Another would declare a temporarily lower tax rate on foreign corporate profits, producing a one-time windfall as companies repatriate cash that has been building up overseas.
Neither of these gimmicks would do anything but buy a little time. They would not provide funding adequate to fix the growing backlog of interstate bridges in need of repair. And they certainly would not provide the money needed to relieve congestion in metropolitan areas.
This is no way to run a railroad — or a highway system.
The best way to deal with declining gas tax revenue happens to be the simplest way: Raise the gas tax. It’s also the fairest way. People who drive the most, and use the most gas-guzzling vehicles, would pay the most.
The days of higher fuel taxes being a “third rail” of politics (touch it and you die) are long gone. In recent years, seven states have either raised their own gas taxes or imposed other fees that raise revenue. The political fallout has been minimal.
Taking the federal gasoline tax to 30 cents per per gallon would not even be an increase, as that is where it was in 1993 in inflation-adjusted dollars. More is needed to keep up with today’s traffic.
One approach would be to raise the tax by a penny a month for as long as two years, which would either go unnoticed amid normal price swings or promote sales of fuel-efficient vehicles.
But rather than take this route, some lawmakers even talk openly of ending the federal involvement in highways and transit, handing responsibility over to states.
Don’t they recognize that the interstate highway system, created by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, is the backbone of the nation’s economy?
The country that built the world’s greatest road system apparently can no longer muster the vision to pave it — a marker of ineptitude that is hard to surpass.
— LIVINGSTON DAILY PRESS AND ARGUS