Democratic leaders have tried to assure them that the proposals of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) won’t be coming to the floor. But Democratic members from conservative districts are watching warily….The budget Congress passed earlier this year included $324 billion for transportation, but Oberstar will soon roll out a transportation bill that could require revenue beyond what the 18.4-cent gas tax can provide.
While the political implications of raising the gas tax are probably very real for the Democrats expressing concern, we found out this week that the Highway Trust Fund (which is funded by the gas tax) is about to go broke for the second consecutive year. If the Fund were to flop, that would mean scaling back or canceling infrastructure projects. It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), but he had it right in saying that canceling projects “would have a detrimental effect on the economy and will negate any gains made by the stimulus.”
Matthew Yglesias, Ryan Avent, and the Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board have all made compelling cases for raising the gas tax now. As Avent put it, “given the various externalities associated with driving and burning gas, it should be clear that reduced driving and gas consumption are good things, to be encouraged. Given the economic damage sustained by high oil prices last year, it again seems clear that reduced gas consumption is a good thing.”
But the Monitor points out that “eventually government –- both federal and state –- will need to find other revenues from transport users.” Indeed, with new CAFE standards and a greater emphasis on fuel efficient vehicles (hopefully) coming down the turnpike, it makes no sense to think that we can rely on the gas tax as a steady source of revenue indefinitely.
Whether it’s through congestion pricing, changing toll structures “so that different classes of vehicles would pay their respective costs,” or a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax, a new revenue stream needs to be found. Whatever the ultimate decision, Oberstar spokesman Jim Berard had it right in saying that a failure to find a new source of revenue “simply kicks the problem down the road.”