Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee congratulated themselves today on their ability to send to the Senate floor a six-year surface transportation bill, but the rest of us should hold our applause.
It is indeed noteworthy that a bipartisan bill is on its way to the full Senate given the sclerotic character of today's Congress on even such no-brainer issues as repairing and improving our decrepit infrastructure. But, placed in context, the committee has crossed a bar that has fallen far too low.
Consider this: The last time Congress was able to pass a surface transportation authorization for more than two years was in 2005, when it sent to President George W. Bush a bill that authorized $286.4 billion over five years. The bill that was sent to the Senate floor today would authorize $11 billion less than the bill Bush signed.
That's 4 percent less money that is supposed to be stretched to last 20 percent longer, at a time when many of the nation's transportation needs have gotten much greater and the cost of meeting those needs is higher.
Plus, the bill is being sent to the Senate with no guidance on how to pay for it. Nearly all federal funding for roads, bridges and public transportation has traditionally come from a federal gasoline tax. But that tax – 18.4 cents per gallon – hasn't been increased since 1993. Not only has inflation eroded the value of that tax, but for most of the past decade people have been driving less and are consuming less gasoline thanks to more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The result is expected to be a shortfall of about $170 billion in the Highway Trust Fund over the next 10 years. And that's just the gap between what the gas tax brings in and a status quo level of spending; that doesn't take into account the revenues we need for the kinds of transportation improvements that would make a dramatic difference in our ability to move people and goods more efficiently through our communities.
The task of figuring out how to pay for what the Environment and Public Works Committee has approved falls to the Senate Finance Committee, which has scheduled a hearing on the matter Thursday. The committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), has said that "as chairman of this committee, I intend to solve this problem" of funding, but he has yet to put his weight behind a particular proposal.
What he has done is conceded that the most logical way to address the problem – increase the gasoline tax – is also the least politically palatable.
Hatch is also reportedly a critic of an Obama administration proposal that would use revenue from money that multinational corporations have currently stowed in tax shelters overseas. The administration would coax corporations to bring the money back into the U.S. by taxing it at a rate significantly below the current corporate rate of 35 percent.
But, as we've warned before, that proposal sets a treacherous stage for the kind of corporate tax reform discussion we need, one that would set off a bidding war for how low corporate taxes should be cut overall – when the demand should be that corporations pay the taxes that support the infrastructure upon which they earn their profits just as the rest of us.
Hatch has said that he would scour the budget for dollars that could be used to augment the Highway Trust Fund – the image of the senior senator from Utah looking under the sofa cushions for lost coins comes to mind. But leaders are supposed to lead, and this is an area where lawmakers should have a common-sense conversation with their constituents, and act on what they know to be true.
Yes, let's face it: We'd rather not pay higher prices for gasoline. But we'd also rather not continue to drive on rutted, congested roads or have to commute on overcrowded buses and trains. We know at the end of the day that in order to get better commutes or to have that online order shipped on time, we all need to pay.
That's why in 2013 and 2014 seven states increased their gasoline taxes, and this year 15 more states are either scheduled to raise their gasoline taxes or are considering it. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association in May released this rejoinder to the notion that gasoline tax increases are unpopular: Ninety-five percent of all Republican state legislators who voted to increase their state gas tax to fund transportation improvements in 2013 and 2014 and ran for re-election last November won their races, as did 88 percent of Democrats.
“This analysis shows two things members of Congress need to know,” ARTBA President & CEO Pete Ruane said. “First, a bipartisan majority can be found to increase transportation investment if the leadership of both parties actually lead—rather than play politics—and give their colleagues a chance to vote. Second, if legislators are honest with their constituents and clearly explain why a gas tax increase is necessary and important and what benefits their constituents will derive from it, they have little reason to fear the ballot box over a gas tax vote.”
When the gasoline tax was last raised, that tax amounted to an average of 17 percent of the cost of fuel, which then averaged $1.06 a gallon for regular gasoline. Today, regular gasoline costs $2.72 a gallon, and the federal gasoline tax is only 6 percent of that cost.
If the gasoline tax went up to 30 cents a gallon today – which would simply adjust it to overall price inflation since 1993 – motorists would still be paying less for a gallon of gasoline than they did this time last year, when gasoline prices exceeded $3.60 a gallon. In exchange for the additional tax, here's what they would receive: Improvements for the nation's more than 66,000 structurally deficient bridges. Fixes for the close to one-third of the nation's major roads that are in such poor condition that they cost motorists on average an additional $324 in repair and maintenance expenses. Relief for public transportation users in areas where demand for transit services has reached record highs. Investment in greener transportation alternatives and in walkable, bikeable communities. The creation of millions of good-paying jobs ranging from design to construction, especially in communities left behind by an anemic recovery from the last recession.
It is true that in the longer term, the nation will have to rethink how it funds its transportation investments. But in the meantime, Congress should not be throwing up its hands and saying it can't increase the gasoline tax. Yes, it can. The anti-tax, anti-government ideologues don't have a better answer, and the lawmakers who know that shouldn't let those ideologues limit the debate. And, frankly, neither should we in the progressive movement who know the need and appreciate that a gasoline tax increase is the best option we have today to meet that need.