Because Federal Gas Tax hasn’t been Raised in 22 Years, U.S. Highways are Deteriorating

Friday, July 24, 2015
Collapsed bridge on Interstate 5 in Washington State (photo: Stephen Brashear, Getty Images)

Anti-tax orthodoxy has paralyzed Congress from raising the gas tax over the past 22 years, leaving the federal government without the necessary funding to build new highways or maintain existing ones.


Since 1993, the federal tax on gasoline sales has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon. In the meantime, the value of this revenue has declined due to inflation, while more Americans have embraced higher fuel-efficient cars, resulting in the Highway Trust Fund falling “deep in the red,” according to Alec MacGillis at ProPublica.


The gap continues to grow, he adds, because lawmakers have refused to adopt a long-term solution for infrastructure needs. Congress has managed to keep the trust fund “on life support” through temporary infusions of money (33 so far), while failing to address a serious and growing problem for American motorists.


“The uncertainty has frozen major projects around the country, from the widening of Route 1 in Delaware to the Kalispell bypass in Montana, while maintenance and repairs are long overdue on thousands of roads and bridges dangerously near the end of their expected life spans,” MacGillis wrote.


The failure to act on Capitol Hill is not a result of powerful lobbies pressuring lawmakers to avoid raising the gas tax. On the contrary, truckers, unions, road builders and big business favor some kind of increase in the tax. Even oil companies don’t seem to be complaining nearly as loudly as might be expected on this kind of issue.


“Instead, it’s an example of those big decisions that get trapped in a kind of ideological crevasse,” MacGillis says. “Because it’s a tax, raising it has been decreed out of bounds by a combination of anti-tax orthodoxy among conservative Republicans and a fear of political backlash that spans both parties.”


The current Trust Fund life raft is set to expire next week, so lawmakers are scrambling to keep the fund afloat. A House bill approved last week would keep it solvent until December, which would allow both houses to try to hammer out a six-year bill which, fueled by a corporate tax overhaul, is said to provide three years of guaranteed funding. This week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) announced that he had reached a preliminary agreement on that measure with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), but Senate Democrats refused to be pressured to approve, by next week’s deadline, something they’ve not yet studied, according to The Wall Street Journal.


So for now, the temporary infusions of money continue, with its supporters offering assurances—as they long have—that it will buy time for Congress to solve the problem.


Another bipartisan bill that has been gaining a bit of traction is the Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act (pdf), which offers a long-term solution utilizing an approach that has been adopted in a number of states. “The bill would keep the gas tax, raise it by half a cent in the first year, and then index it to inflation moving forward, so it could grow roughly in line with costs,” explained MacGillis. “The plan would provide enough revenue over 10 years, $27.5 billion, to plug the shortfall in the next couple years. Meanwhile, the bill would order a congressional task force to come up with an alternate long-term solution, and if it failed to do so, the gas tax would be increased to whatever level was necessary to fill the trust fund.”


There’s no telling yet if it will gain enough support to move forward. In the meantime, House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) recently repeated the congressional mantra: “We are not going to raise gas taxes, plain and simple.”

-Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Road Hazard: How the ‘Embarrassing’ Gas Tax Impasse Explains Washington (by Alec MacGillis, ProPublica)

Senate Reaches Preliminary Agreement on Highway Funding Bill (by Siobhan Hughes and Kristina Peterson, Wall Street Journal)

Highway Upkeep Trust Fund Nears Bankruptcy (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Federal Transportation Funding May Be Running Out of Gas (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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