In the wake of the Aug. 1, Minneapolis bridge collapse, Rep. Jim Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, proposed a 5-cents-per-gallon increase in the federal excise tax on gasoline with a goal of raising $25 billion over three years for critical bridge repairs across the United States.
While there are legitimate concerns about the safety of the nation”s bridges and overpasses, increasing the federal gas tax is unnecessary. Congress can better ensure the soundness of the bridges and overpasses simply by shifting existing funds within the transportation budget, without sticking it to poor drivers.
The gas tax was became law in the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act that established the Highway Trust Fund and stipulated 100 percent of the gas tax be deposited into this fund. The trust fund financed highway building and maintenance across the nation. Currently, the federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents per gallon, while states levy additional gas taxes at rates ranging from a low of 8 cents per gallon in Alaska to a high of 44.4 cents per gallon in California.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 12 percent of the 597,340 bridges in the United States are structurally deficient — requiring significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.
Despite past debate on the poor condition of the nation”s bridges, the situation was largely ignored before the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse. As they have for decades, Congress diverted Highway Trust Fund dollars away from potentially lifesaving construction and repair to pork-barrel and specially earmarked projects. Had this money not been diverted to nonhighway projects in the past, we would not need to be discussing raising the gas tax today — there would be plenty of money to maintain and expand roads and bridges.
For instance, the 2005 highway bill included $2 billion annually for bridge reconstruction. By contrast, Congress stuffed the bill with nearly 6,500 pork-barrel projects worth more than $24 billion — about the same amount Mr. Oberstar”s proposed tax increase would raise. Those projects included “high-priority” transportation items like $5 million to improve air quality in Sacramento, Calif., region, $4 million for bike paths and public park space near New River in Calexico, Calif., and $4 million for streetscape, pedestrian improvements in Clarkson, Ga.
Indeed, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says only 60 percent of federal gas taxes go to build and maintain highways and bridges. Thirty percent goes to subsidize construction and maintenance of public transit facilities, such as bus terminals, light rail and subway systems. This is especially unfortunate since passenger rail lines, for instance, cost 2½ to 5 times as much per mile to construct, though only one in the nation carries as much passenger traffic as a single lane on a freeway. The remaining 10 percent is diverted to other projects — currently 6,000 projects including bike paths, museums, nature trails, historic building repairs. etc.
Proponents of the tax increase insist it would be barely noticeable. But the reality is that a 5-cents-per-gallon jump would result in American motorists paying more than $7.50 in taxes alone for an average fill-up.
Why does this matter? The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that families earning $24,000 per year spent almost 5 percent of their income on gas, while families earning $132,000 per year spent less than 2 percent. Thus, a gas tax increase would most dramatically affect the working poor, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes on gasoline than any other group.
Despite these facts, Mr. Oberstar told the Rochester Post-Bulletin, “If you”re not prepared to invest another five cents in bridge reconstruction and road reconstruction, then God help you.”
Ironically, Mr. Oberstar recently boasted he had “secured more than $12 million in funding” for his state in a recent federal transportation and housing bill, none of which went for bridge repair. Instead, the funding included $10 million for a commuter rail line, $250,000 for a bike and hike trail, $200,000 for bus services in Duluth and $150,000 for the Mesabi Academy of Kidspeace in Buhl.
Fifty years ago, the federal government played an important role in creating a national transportation system. The federal gasoline tax financed this effort by ensuring that drivers paid the costs of the system.
The Highway Trust Fund should be dedicated to building and maintaining roads and bridges. If trust fund spending was properly prioritized, bridge repairs could be funded by current national and state fuel taxes, and the safety and pocketbooks of Americans would be better protected.
Heidi Sommer is a policy intern and H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.
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