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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
 

In Our View: Raise Federal Gas Tax

Trump is right; increase needed to repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure

By The Columbian
Published: May 10, 2017, 6:03am

Although many of President Donald Trump’s spontaneous declarations can induce confusion and head-scratching, he occasionally seizes upon an idea worthy of consideration. Such was the case recently when Trump declared that he would consider an increase to the federal gas tax if that increase was earmarked for repairing the nation’s roads.

Many Republicans in Congress, beholden to a no-new-taxes pledge regardless of how it limits the nation’s ability to deal with problems, shot down the idea. And White House spokesman Sean Spicer insisted that Trump was simply keeping an open mind “out of respect” for trucking industry representatives who had urged him to support a higher tax. But when Trump is right, he’s right, and the need for increasing the federal gas tax is one of those instances.

The federal gas tax, which goes to the Highway Trust Fund, has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. With inflation and with more fuel-efficient vehicles, the purchasing power of the tax has been diminished over the past quarter-century. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that, minus concrete solutions, the Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent within a decade.

Previously, the federal gas tax was increased as a matter of routine, including in 1983, 1990, and 1993 — two of which, it should be noted, occurred during Republican administrations. But since then, an anti-tax rigidity has taken hold that routinely hampers this nation’s ability to deal with pressing issues.

Nobody likes to pay higher taxes, and the gas tax is especially regressive in that it hits nearly all Americans regardless of their ability to pay. But nobody likes crumbling roads and bridges, either, and the United States is increasingly faced with transportation corridors that serve as roadblocks to prosperity. The nation’s backlog of highway repair projects is estimated to be $740 billion, and one in every five miles is judged to be in disrepair.

Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of raising the federal gas tax is an examination of those who support it. Chris Spear, head of the American Trucking Associations, said that truckers are losing $50 billion annually to congestion, which slows the transport of freight and wastes fuel. Truckers support an increase to the tax, which is 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other various business groups also support an increase, recognizing that the gas tax is an investment in American commerce. A gas tax is a user fee that adheres to conservative orthodoxy.

For Washingtonians, the thought of a gas tax increase might be anathema. The state tax of 49.4 cents per gallon is the second-highest in the nation, making for a total tax of 67.8 cents on each gallon. The state tax was increased in both 2015 and 2016 as part of a plan to raise $16 billion for transportation improvements through 2031. A total of nearly 70 cents per gallon is a big chunk of money, currently accounting for about one-quarter of the cost for filling up your tank in Washington. But it also is costly to have inadequate and poorly repaired roads that create congestion and place wear and tear upon cars.

In the long run, funding for the Highway Trust Fund will require a different approach. Diverting funds from a bloated defense budget or enacting fees based upon mileage rather than gas purchased will present more sturdy solutions that will be necessary to keep this nation moving.

In the meantime, a small increase to the gas tax would provide a more politically expedient fix for crumbling roads and bridges.

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