July 3, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Highway Trust Fund needs boost in federal gas tax

 

Americans love automobiles but don’t like paying for highways, bridges and other transportation projects.

The federal gasoline tax was last raised in 1993, squeaking through the Senate by one vote. Since that bruising battle, the levy hasn’t been touched, and the shabby shape of the nation’s infrastructure reflects a funding squeeze. In the past 20 years, the nation’s population has grown by 30 percent and the purchasing power of the gasoline tax has dropped by 48 percent.

No wonder the Highway Trust Fund is running on fumes.

If the fund doesn’t get an $8.1 billion infusion soon, it won’t be able to meet its obligations for the rest of the year. Some current projects would be put on hold. New projects wouldn’t get off the drawing board.

The math is simple. While the feds spend $53 billion a year on transportation projects, the 18.4 cents per gallon levy on gasoline (24.4 cents for diesel) raises only $35 billion annually. Since 2008, Congress has made up the difference by moving money from general revenue accounts, which keeps projects funded but expands the already large budget deficit.

Inflation and the increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles have eroded the value of the gas tax, so the nation needs a long-term solution. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Washington state leaders have also failed to face up to transportation funding. Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature agree on the need but can’t agree on how to raise and manage the money.

If more money isn’t pumped into the federal Highway Trust Fund, the Washington state Department of Transportation forecasts a 25 percent decline in federal dollars for 2015, which would intensify the need for a state solution.

Last year, six states – some run by Republicans – increased transportation taxes because of the deterioration of federal funding. Maryland and Massachusetts raised their gas taxes and pegged future increases to inflation so the funds would better hold their value. This is a practical solution because the prices of asphalt, steel, heavy machinery and labor will inevitably rise.

Two weeks ago, Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., proposed raising the federal gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years. Before the long dry spell on federal funding, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan signed gas tax increases. Then Republicans began signing shortsighted pledges to never raise taxes, and the transportation backlog has grown.

Nobody likes to pay more at the pump. But when truckers start lobbying for tax increases, it’s a clear sign the need is critical. The American Trucking Associations has joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups to push for a tax increase, because it’s getting more difficult to get goods to markets.

The average motorist is forking over half of what he or she paid per mile for roads since the latest federal gas tax increase, according to the American Automobile Association.

Yes, we adore our cars, but it’s time we gave the roads some love, too.


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